Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The final chapter of an unplanned trilogy

This pic is for all the "apologist" accusers. Bite me.

This month I have written on Japan, three times if you count the Bonkras article (which I do not, since it is not about Japan as much as it is about the human-machine interface). Earlier writings featured an engagement with the some of the dominant ways in which a wide range of foreigners in Japan conceptualise belonging and exclusion in Japan. To summarise: there is a tendency among foreigners from what I refer to the “Anglosphere” when in Japan to make social critique grounded in an overwhelmingly mono-linguistic approach. Their mono-linguistic illiteracy compels them to rely on external “Anglosphere” knowledges and concepts in order to perform their critiques. The problematic of this external knowledge base is compounded by three broad conceptual areas: (1) lingering cultural chauvinism as the result of colonial legacy, (2) local internalisation and replication of these external Anglosphere narratives for non-Japanese consumption (primarily traditional print media such as guide books, locally printed newspapers and cultural/travel brochures) and (3) continually repeated and replicated internet based knowledges combining both (1) and (2) above with blogs, forums and social media. The resulting English language knowledges of Japan exist in an ignorant disjunct to their local Japanese language equivalents. What is especially alarming about these knowledges is that in the current internet era, the speed and frequency with which they can be created and reproduced allows them to attain a truth value impossible in previous informational eras. This knowledge disjunct is where I locate the primary site of self-exclusion and self reduction of the foreigner from gaikokujin (foreigner) to gaijin (outsider). Naturally, there is more to belonging and exclusion than the types of information they consume, however, the effect of knowledge on concept creation and the relationship between it and feeling in and of a place cannot be denied. To position one’s mind as outside a local geography, society and history with the local constantly filtered through an external cognitive framework can only result in a kind of anguished socio-cultural dislocation.

Before moving on to the rest of this article, I believe it is time to define what I have referred to multiple times as the Anglosphere. This is a particularly compressed term used to represent a number of different concepts. On the most basic level, it refers to the countries which were once part of the British Empire and includes: The US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, Hong Kong and so on. The purpose is not to fix some kind of “pure” colonial identity, after all, de-colonisation in Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong has demonstrated the extent to which Imperial concepts can be ambivalently eclipsed, reproduced and modified for local conditions. Similarly, at this basic level, Anglosphere is used to refer to countries where English has become official first language or is otherwise widely used enough to be considered “integrated” into local cultures. Indeed, what would be of great value and interest is how the English language prism is recalibrated in explicitly multi-lingual, multicultural countries such as India. But I possess neither space, nor knowledge to do so here. To summarise, Anglosphere thus far is used to refer to colonial legacy and linguistic presence within culture. As the British Empire waned and the American century began, informational and knowledge practices of the old empire were carried across the Atlantic and again reconfigured for the purposes of global military, intelligence and economic domination. At the core of Anglosphere thought then is the stubborn concept of colonisation and cultural hegemony, two and more centuries of global domination through military, political and economic force have embedded themselves in English-language thought where universal binaries, victories and linearities are privileged over contextual multiplicities, negotiations and convolutions. The point is that English-language knowledges as they are used across a wide array of economically developed nations descended from the British Empire, have a history of use of domination and chauvinism. This is what I refer to when I use the term Anglosphere. Furthermore, I strongly caution against mono-lingual allegiance to Anglosphere knowledges as the result seems to be all too frequently a one sided, self perpetuating attack rather than nuanced, considered and respectful engagement. It is my opinion that to date, most English language knowledge on Japan falls into this pattern.

I have recently visited and commented on Tepido a number of times in the last few weeks. I was inspired to do so by the presence of “like” minds: people with multi-linguistic capability and with high levels of informational pattern recognition skills. I was relieved to see that there were fellow residents and thinkers in Japan capable of thinking outside of the box. Although on the surface, and accusations have certainly been made from a number of visitors, the site appears to be a shrine to the denigration and stalking of one time Japanese citizen and social activist Arudo Debito, it is more akin to a news satire or fact checking TV program not unlike the Australian Broadcasting Cooperation’s Mediawatch. The reason for its existence is the direct result of Debito’s activism regularly published on his blog, which originally appeared to be concerned with social change but on closer scrutiny is shallow and under-thought at best and arrogant and offensive (and sometimes quite blatantly untrue) at worst. My time on Tepido is about to draw to an end simply because I do not have the fortitude to sustain a conversation in real time when clearly outnumbered by Anglosphere warriors accusing me and others who question their universalism as “apologists” (ooh, such a dirty word). I will continue from time to time to post on Japan and especially incorrect, dubious or offensive depictions of it in the Anglosphere media, but for now, well, I am just about done. I may well pick this up again, somewhere around when and where my abandoned, dusty, outdated and incomplete doctoral degree lies. Until then, sayonara.

That said, I would like to address a few things raised on Debito regarding “Jeff Smith on Yahoo Japan”.

1. The majority of complaints from commentators revolve around the Japanese seller’s refusal to do business with foreigners. The seller’s reason for this is related to communication issues. Many potential buyers not in Japan lack Japanese skills. Therefore if something goes wrong with a transaction it may be very difficult to remedy the problem smoothly and efficiently. The same can be said for non-Japanese and non-Japanese speaking foreigners in Japan. After all, the terms of use that buyers/sellers agree to clearly state that fluent/literate Japanese is required in order to participate in the auction marketplace. If you disagree with those conditions or cannot otherwise meet them, you should contact Yahoo Japan and explain why you should be allowed to use their services, in Japanese!

2. In bidding for an item offered for sale, a bidder (buyer) user uses a handle (screen name) for the purpose of the bidding. The user handle does not have to indicate the user’s real name in anyway whatsoever. Thus if my name is Joe Blow, there is no reason why I cannot just name myself “TwinkleBarbieStar99.” There is no indication at all in this user name of my actual name, whether it be Japanese or non-Japanese. A “real name” is actually not required until a bid is won and shipping/bank account (where relevant) details are exchanged. To be refused at this point is highly unlikely. In my own experience, I have almost been refused as a result of an error on my own part when I edited information on a product I was selling (I was in the wrong, incorrect Japanese). However, on contacting the buyer, who was all but ready to cancel and explaining to him my situation, was able to ensure him of my honesty and integrity as a seller. In Japanese of course. He gave me a perfect reputation score for that transaction. In spite of my earlier language errors.

3. If a seller has any reason/suspicion that a transaction may go badly, s/he has every right to cancel the process. It is her/his goods on the line. Money has yet to change hands. Similarly, cancelled transaction events can be communicated to Yahoo and are reflected in the seller’s profile statistics. Further, a seller has every right to cancel a transaction with a low scored bidder (a bidder who has achieved only a small number of transactions) since a lot of spam bids and fraud are executed with such identities. Many foreigners are in this boat, especially fly-by-night, Johnny-come-lately, green-horns who are here to teach English for a year or two. Again, the solution is simple – learn to communicate in Japanese or learn to do without. Chances are the item you want to bid on is also available locally at Hard Off or another store anyway.

4. People commenting on how a seller cancelling a transaction to a foreigner is racist seriously need to get a grip. Maybe the seller is racist. So what? Some guy on the internet refuses to sell you something that he owns because he does not like your “race”. Do you really think this is about skin colour? Your citizenship? In a cool, calm and collected moment, even if you could win a claim/appeal and go to court, would you really be happy with a court mandated order forcing a racist to sell you goods that he rightfully owned in the first place? Do you think this will make the seller see the error of his ways and appreciate the world’s racial rainbow? Pyrrhic victory much? Here comes another Westerner to the orient telling them how to be. Colonial, much?

5. “Japanese learned nothing from WWII”. Are. You. Fucking. People. Fucking. Serious? Time to get a grip. One potential racist on Yahoo Auction is extrapolated to the entire nation’s people. Sometimes absurdity can only be countered with absurdity. Indulge me. Sung to the tune of Ini Kamoze’s “Here comes the hotstepper”:

Say it!

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,

Blah, blah, blah, blah,

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah

Here comes extrapolatah (liar!)

Serial exaggeratah (usotsuki)

National prognosticatah (what?)

Internet masturbatah! (slanderer)

No we don’t buy,

Monolinguist lies,

Anyone test will be censored, banned

Act like you know

We know what you don’t know

Don’t have to stretch, lie or inflate,

Ch ch chang, chang.


Apologies to Mr Kamoze.

6. Can you seriously imagine the day when you live to see a white or black Japanese Prime Minister?”. I can. It will be when Japan has an ethnic/demographic composition similar to the US. Until then… Hedder, hadda, herder…

7. another good way to get the attention of yahoo japan [sic] is to do a public boycott of yahoo japan [sic] until they correct there [sic] internal problems.” Indeed, let all one hundred of us, in a market of millions boycott! And can we get them to save the whales while we’re at it? Next!

Grain Poison and the Neuroses of so-called Affluence

While on yet another stroll through the grimy gardens of the latter day internet, I discovered a derailed conversation that sung the praises of Atkins diets and decried the horror that is carbohydrate. To prove their postulations participants in this conversation pointed to “research” showing the undeniable evidence that carbohydrates are the ultimate enemy of the first world over eater. Yet amid this storm, it seems to me that a few simple facts got buried, yet again, beneath the agenda of decontextualised, corporate aligned research practices.

As a cultural studies graduate the mantra of: “but by whom and for whom is the question asked and indeed what is the question being asked to produce this new knowledge”. It is no secret that the lion’s share of American based nutritional and agricultural research is performed with and for massive corporations who take masses of biological matter and turn it into money with little regard for the environment or human health as it functions in a whole context. So when I read about carbohydrates turning to poison in our bodies and the very reason for diabetes and obesity, I reach for my revolver.

First, some historical context. Carbohydrates, whether in the form of grains, tubers or other forms such as plantains and simple sugars are the very substances which have allowed human beings as a species to put distance between themselves and the borderlands of survival and extinction. Almost every culture on earth has utilised carbohydrates to ensure survival and eventually flourish. There are exceptions, such as the Arctic Circle indigenous people who rely on animal products to the exclusion (impossibility) of carbohydrates, but their proximity to survival/extinction is clearly indicated by the fact they have and abundance of caloric intake yet some of the shortest life spans of human beings outside of sub-Saharan Africa. Carbohydrates have provided human beings with sources of storable, portable and versatile caloric and nutritional intakes.

The opposition to carbohydrates stems mainly from first world nations, particularly in the Anglosphere where overconsumption is not only rampant but encouraged. Agricultural subsidies and other economic policies have seen carbohydrates in three main forms (grain, other, converted to sugar) become devalued to such an extent that they are now seen as adjuncts to the diet and not staples. Indeed, meat rich diets of these nations are in fact merely another form of converted grain incurring massive waste and environmental destruction. It is my argument that if we were to scale back the consumption habits of the modern affluent countries and reconfigure eating habits so that they were more in line with “whole context” approaches, we would see at worst a reduction and at best an elimination of a wide variety of lifestyle related diseases.

Why is this? The food chain is as most aspects of contemporary society dominated by economic interest rather than human well being. Arbitrary guidelines are set and are adhered to only to the extent that they do not impact on profit. After all, do we really need to eat fresh tomatoes in winter in temperate and northern climates? Is it necessary for the survival of the Australian people to grow massive amounts of rice on the Murray River, an essentially dead irrigation trough? Is our desire for hamburgers so great that we need to feed a quantity of grain and protein to cattle so that we can buy the end product at a price that does not justify the inputs? Eating closer to home and with the natural rhythms of the land would certainly reduce the availability of certain foodstuffs. But again, would this be such a bad thing anyway? After all, look where overconsumption has got us.

Are grains toxic? This question and the research around it appears to be somewhat of a wild goose chase, another instance of people chasing the dollar to questions that are asked for purposes we as consumers cannot know. It is harder to address the actual causes of illness, individual and societal than it is to create new knowledges which become through repetition and frequency new common senses which result in an continuation of lifestyle related diseases.

I feel that if we were to take into account the broader considerations of contemporary society and begin addressing fundamental questions of overconsumption and overproduction we might start to find ways in which to address illness that do not require fad diets, special chemicals or gene therapy. Consciousness and moderation, while less profitable to certain merchants are the cornerstone of happy, satisfied living. So for the time being, diets and research created in the lands of overabundance, overconsumption and overproduction will not sway me, I’ll stick with my bread sticks, bowl of rice and various tubers throughout the day. You do what you want but let us just stop the noise?


After a little scratching around, I found the homepage of Michael Greger, MD, which is essentially an encyclopaedic rebuttal of the entire Atkins’ mythology. Greger’s work is substantiated by literally thousands of actual academic studies from a stunningly broad range of sources as well supported by virtually all mainstream American medical and dietary organisations including: the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, American Dietetic Association, and the American Medical Association. Greger goes to extraordinary lengths to rebut many popular myths which have become truth through repetition throughout the internet (especially the one about “not all calories being equal”).

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Just Stop It – Yeah, you Debito!

In 2010-2011 a good friend of mine visited Japan and taught Australian Studies at Todai (Tokyo University). I was overjoyed because it had been some time since I had last seen him and also because in addition to being highly astute he is a great conversationalist. Finally, someone with whom I could share my own experiences of living in Japan (coming up on close to ten years altogether). What was so refreshing about the limited conversations we had was his total lack of bitterness prevalent among gaijin. As I have written elsewhere there is a general persistent malaise infecting Anglosphere gaijin in Japan, a malaise that might correctly be diagnosed as a failure to recognise the limits of their cultural universality and the resultant bitterness that manifests as they are trapped within a hyper-speed game of conceptual Pong in which they are always on the losing team.

An admission: I have had moments of bitterness. While I take full responsibility for them, I am also able to locate, on reflection their origins: the miasma of self-perpetuating “opinion” offered up as knowledge across what seems to be the entire English-language internet relating to Japan. In other words, going online for help resulted in self-fulfilling, paranoid and unreconstructed retreads of other people’s stories. What is worse, is that a number of supposedly authoritative online voices from high profile activists such as Arudo Debito seem to relish in and gleefully spread cynical screeds against issues that with a little more thought and a tad more contextual awareness would not be as difficult or terrible as they make out.

Debito is an odd bird. On emigrating to Japan he eventually attained naturalised Japanese citizenship, quite a rare feat for a Westerner. Indeed, his precedent, along with his civic-rights-oriented activist bent caused him to rise to some degree of fame. His fifteen minutes came when he won a lawsuit against a Hokkaido hot springs owner who had denied him and one of his daughters entry on grounds of race. But it seems that Debito’s hunger for fame or at least admiration as a vanguard activist eclipsed his capacity for considered reflection and contextual awareness. A casual read of his blog reveals a number of interesting and high profile stories to do with illegal discrimination and everyday life in Japan. The blog also seems regularly frequented by a number of people with similar interests. However, with sustained, continuous engagement it begins to be possible to locate an underlying bitterness and personal dissatisfaction that quite clearly colours his writings. What had started out as spotlighting and acting on injustice has turned into smug, chauvinistic critique.

In his latest Japan Times column “These are a few of my favourite things in Japan” in the semi-regular opinion series “Just Be Cause,” Debito employs a spot of silver tonguing in an attempt to both “be positive” and offer salient critique. Indeed, the former idea is a rather antiquated internet discussion rhetorical device frequently employed by those inclined to plead “but you never say anything good” or “If it’s so bad, just go home”. As for the latter, observation has always been Debito’s strong suit, critique, less so. Both combined make for a dire reading experience in which each compliment appears poisoned by an invisible yet omnipresent sarcastic smirk. One further issue is his flippant disregard of Japanese satire and the role of irony/sarcasm in Japanese society.

While correct in asserting a lack of emphasis on sarcasm as a legitimate means of communicating humour or social analysis, he fails to tell us just why it matters. After all, he points out how Anglosphere cultures have a rich tradition of sarcasm and stinging social critique, but fails to let us know that a lot of this critique has its origins in class politics as a way of shoring up class hierarchies and dismissing lower class cultural practice. In fact I would be more interested in his take on social critique from a Japanese perspective in relation to Anglosphere critique and ironic modes of humour. But then again, whenever Debito writes, it is always from the location of a particular kind of gaijin crystallised in time and place, a kind of outsider who knows more than his green-behind-the-ears fan base but seems incapable of getting inside a local, cultural perspective. While clearly proficient in Japanese to a certain level, Debito appears to be culturally illiterate when it comes to examining similar phenomena from different cultural perspectives.

Obviously, his latest column is supposed to be an exercise in humour and appeal to the gaijin readership of the Japan Times. In such a genre, he hardly has the time or space to address in detail any of the critiques I have raised here. It would be nice, however, to see writing from such a prominent gaijin who attained permanent residency in 1996 and citizenship in 2000. That is a long time to hold onto such limited outsider concepts at the expense of digging deep into the local mind beyond adversarial escapades in so-called activism. Why not start writing in Japanese? Why not start engaging with actual local community beyond the gaijin Anglosphere, in their own language. So in regards to the shots fired at Japan from an American distance away, I say, “Stop it, Debito, just stop it!” If you want to have any relevance at all in terms of Japan’s multicultural future, you may need to redraft your terms of war. In fact, leave the war behind and make peace. Dude.

How about a fair fight? Human on Human

Way, way back in Too Old I criticised Jaron Lanier’s concept of hip hop. I stand by that critique. However, as time moves forward and social media continues to be integrated and moreover, normalised in contemporary technolgised societies, much of what Lanier had to say in relation to mob mentality, crowd wisdom and anonymity holds true. What I want to return to specifically in Lanier’s work is the idea of human elegance in programming.

Last month Bonkras, a computer program with some serious processing muscle behind it again defeated legendary shogi player, Kunio Yonenaga in a hyped event not unlike that of IBM’s Big Blue and Kasparov. Though it must be said that Yonenaga was a far more graceful loser. As usual a flood of analytical reporting sluiced through prime time current affairs and variety shows, all under the heading “Man versus machine” (etc). It only took the first such headline to send my mind at lightspeed (or thereabouts) to Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget. Lanier rightly points out that in spite all of the processing power and depth capable in contemporary software, the all too frequent trope of the machine beating the human is not only flawed but essentially a logical fallacy. After all, it was humans in the first place who created the platform for the software to run on in addition to the software itself. Frequently such misanthropic software takes months if not years in actual man hours and numerous testers, debuggers, graphic designers, engineers and mathematicians to produce. Indeed, if we were to properly frame Yonenaga’s recent rematch defeat it would be more sensible and far less human hating to render it:

“Team of humans building on the work of hundreds of mathematicians, programmers and engineers before them find a way of (a) externalising a number of calculations relating to a highly specific, highly controlled and limited environment via post-mechanical, integrated circuit technology after many months of research, trial and error and then (b) pit this technology against a human who, like the majority of the species is incapable of making calculations at the speed and density of machine mentioned at (a) and then waiting for the (inevitable) outcome.”

Although accurate, a far less attention grabbing headline. What is interesting to me is that we rarely think twice about the mechanical advantages most machines have over humans in most situations (from bulldozers to power saws). However, when it comes to the mind there seems to be a fascination around the binary culture/nature, machine/man, as though they are not in fact one and the same. May I stand accused of sour-graping Bonkras’ victory, but is it not bleedingly obvious that had someone not turned on a power switch and launched the software application, Yonenaga’s victory would have been assured. At least, at this level, the necessity for a human hand can easily be seen.

I believe what would be more interesting and more deserving of praise would be rival Bonkras type programs which would allow a level playing field, where multiple teams put their software, calculating and algorithm creating prowess to the test by facing off against each other. It is neither sporting nor fair to place an external calculating device designed to a maintained by a team of professionals against a single human opponent. After all, let us take a look at some of the mathematics involved. A computer is capable of number crunching at a level far outstripping human capacity and on raw numbers alone, it is thus capable of taking a vast amount of database information probability and correlating it against mathematical possibility within the environmental confines of the game itself.

In other words, shogi-master-crushing-software can draw on an entire recorded history of actual moves at various stages of a single game, it can also reference paths to victory and defeat and then analyse them in terms of frequency. Furthermore, path trends based on frequency of use correlated to actual number of victories/defeats over time can be analysed in order to develop a probability tree which can be further divided according to per turn or event based timing. All of this raw data and analytical data of actual patterns over time forms a probability matrix. This probability matrix can then be indexed against a possibility matrix which is made up of the actual number of possible moves given the environmental (a nine by nine board) and rule based (especially the ability to return pieces to the board) conditions/limitations. The scale of the probability matrix is truly awesome. As I am not a mathematician, my analogies will be crude and probably to some degree incorrect. Astute readers, please correct!

Let us say that post-Pacific War (1945 onward) there are shogi tournaments in four major urban centres (Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Fukuoka) with eighty participants drawn from the cities and surrounds capable of playing at a semi-pro and professional level. That is a total of 320 players in a national “league”. Then let us presume that there are a total of four elimination tree tournaments per year, plus a final fifth to determine overall champions in each league. At this point alone, in a single urban centre we have a total of: eighty games in a single tournament which includes progress to the end and the determination of a third place winner. Multiply this by four (number of tournaments in a single year) for a total of 320 games played. Let us say that the top twenty from each urban centre are chosen to play in a national tournament, that is another eighty games played for a total of 400 games in a year. For the sake of simplicity, I am not including special events, champion versus champion exhibitions matches and so on. But that 400 is not the end, we have skipped a step, first let us go back to the local leagues. 320 games/league per year is a total of 1280 in addition to the 80 “national” championship rounds for a grand total of 1360 games per year of recorded professional level shogi. Multiply that number again by 67 (difference in years between present and beginning of records) for a total of 91,120 games to provide the base raw data for a program to analyse.

Now let us put this number in context. If a game of shogi takes thirty minutes to play to completion (and this is a conservative, lower limit estimate) then the total time spent to complete 91,120 games is 2,733,600 minutes, or 45,560 hours or again 1,898 days which is equivalent to just over five years of non-stop, shogi with no breaks for eating, drinking, sleeping or living. Simply put, it is unlikely any human in existence is capable of calculating at a speed required in order to effectively beat a software based opponent capable of utilising this data in real time on a consistent basis. Rise of the robots indeed.

Do not fear reader, as I am no technophobe. My ever-suffering partner would attest otherwise simply by starting to count the number of gadgets in my possession. As I have written again elsewhere, a software program is as elegant piece of engineering or art as anything else, more physically based that preceded it. I have written about my return to heavy metal but have only touched ever so briefly on my return to gaming. And that return can be attribute to Lanier’s argument presented above. When games are not conceptualised as “mindless” diversions, “mere” entertainment or painfully legitimised as “art” and instead seen as a conceptual interface between a user and programmer/programming team, it becomes possible to enjoy gaming on a meta level while still enjoying the thrill of shaving precious 100ths of seconds of Mario Kart 7 time attack times. When gaming on the Zen level it becomes possible to locate engineering pragmatics, hardware and software based coding limitations and personal idiosyncrasies of the creators.

Zen level gaming is a term I use to refer to the practice or event of being simultaneously engaged with the problem posed by the software at hand and then attempting to understand how that problem sits in the wider game as a mechanical consideration (in other words an attempt to contextualise the game in time and space). In days past, this was easier than it was now as hardware limitations imposed discipline on colour palettes, sound frequencies and calculations. With today’s processors, truly breathtaking virtual worlds, down to the smallest level of detail are created and finding the “logic” an mechanisms of the games can be somewhat more difficult. Though not always. This is simply another articulation of the Bonkras/Big Blue paradigm. Games offer far richer ways to humans of interacting with complex environments with restrictions reduced for the purpose of creating a sense of freedom. Designers are working ever-harder, in tandem with hardware developers to cover their tracks, to paper over conceptual/perceptual cracks and create mind bending illusions for preventing discovery of deus ex machina. But new generations of children (and curious adults for that matter), weaned on and equally familiar with evolving digital technological frameworks continuously find new ways of simultaneous engagement and reflexive distance. In other words any distances achieved between artificially assigned separations between human and machine are constantly closed through evolving use patterns.

To me then this whole “man vs machine” debate is deeply problematic. It relies on a populist and incorrect separation of human and technology which is at best naive and at worst irredeemably cynical. Humans have learned to see and create the world through calculation a concept they created, just like memory or language, which in a full feedback loop comes to continuously (re)create them. Technological innovation stemming from calculation has allowed us to exceed our limitations in virtually every natural, limiting element. Thus there is no such thing as “man vs machine” since “machine” can only ever be, even when (apparently) fully separate from human biology by way of artificial intelligence, of human. Let us set the correct terms for a fair fight, then?

What happened to Metal Hammer?

When it comes to magazines, the British get it right more than most. Whether entertainment, information, tabloid, technology or food, they manage to do something which their Anglosphere peers are rarely able to achieve: a well proportioned balance of content, economic imperative (advertising) and individual editorial/writer personality/flavour. Metal Hammer is a magazine I have read, on and off for about twenty years. Indeed, I even subscribed to the print edition for a few years as well as the ipad digital bookshelf version earlier this year. Until about the time Terry Bezer (aka Beez) left Metal Hammer magazine and podcast in June 2011, both magazine and podcast were exemplary of the British magazine tradition outlined above. Since then the magazine has been “revamped” and reoriented and to some degree rebranded for a somewhat different audience. Let me be clear, as rad a dude as Beez is, as a “mere” contributor, I doubt his leaving was the reason for this change. In fact, the change might have been the reason for his leaving, which was abrupt and completely silent with regards to explanation of any sort. But that is a story for another time.

Metal Hammer was always unapologetically marketed to a raucous, outsider, youth, hipster, underground crowd. Its demographic was as at least as complex as its subject matter. For many years it was divided into two broad sections, the magazine proper and a supplement at the back entitled Subterranea. Indeed, it was this latter section which yours truly achieved the most satisfaction. The magazine proper deals with relatively “mainstream” hard rock and metal acts with fairly equal coverage of young/new bands, established acts, as well as American, European and UK based scenes (and recently more globally including Central and South America, the Middle East, South East Asia, and South Asia). Advertising is typical of the core demographic – gothic/S&M/“evil”/anti-religious/rebellious influenced fashion as well as appealing to Angloshpere binge drinking culture and more recently musical instruments and related equipment. This is rounded out by album reviews, live reviews, letters and news typical of the music magazine genre. Subterranea also follows this pattern but its focus is more on marginal and so-called underground acts including death metal, black metal, grindcore, doom and other music not normally within the metal canon but nevertheless aesthetically congruent. It frequently contained interviews with well known scene leaders and demonstrated a calibre of knowledge and writing somewhat less trendy and more “in” the scene itself.

Metal Hammer today still mimics this format, yet from the layout to the timbre of the writing, from the advertising to the choice of bands in both sections has resulted in a flattening, or at worst a homogenisation of the previous diversity and complexity. What this results in is a surrendering of the middle ground between accessibility and underground credibility. Hammer once stood as a readable and open minded counter balance to the pop-hype of Kerrang! and the tougher-than-you tr00-kvlt-ism of Terrorizer. Now however it reads like a slightly thicker version of the former on the quality of paper of the latter and with fewer posters than either. I mean, the most recent issue features an interview with Sammy Hagar (yes, as in Van Halen) in Subterranea. Really? No, really? I am happy to vouch for the relevance of Van Halen in hard rock and metal, but in terms of relevance to a black/death/grind/doom underground, Hagar has none. Just why the market needs a re-tooled version of Kerrang! is beyond this writer. It won’t stop me from specyalatin’ though...

With the push to online delivery modes through the Apple Store’s Bookshelf platform it is obvious that as with the rest of the industry, the focus is moving away from actual ink and paper. The internet allows far more satisfaction for the “hardcore” music enthusiast. S/he is able to chase down the most obscure information across a warren of different sites and sample a previously impossible range and density of music. S/he is already online, has RSS feeds set up and regularly receives news about release dates, fan packs, studio reports and new artists. This type of reader no longer needs a physical magazine. Therefore, if a publisher is to maintain a print presence in a shrinking yet still not irrelevant market, it must appeal to the widest demographic possible. All of this is understandable and yet I cannot help but to feel sad. I have lost a long term companion in the re-jigged Hammer. Like a good friend who found god, it still looks the same, talks the same but everything is just somehow “off” and when s/he says what s/he thinks all you can do is remember how things used to be.

Hammer, we ain’t done yet but it won’t be long. Don’t make me say “Twas nice knowin’ ya”. For the rest of you? Stay metal.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Psycroptic – Inherited Repression (Review)

In my youth, one of my favourite things when listening to new music was “strike points”. My version of strike point here refers not to the musicological term but rather a moment in time where expectations are simultaneously met, denied and exploded. It can be as simple as a particular note in a lyrical phrase, a time or key change or much more complex and macro as when the meaning of a composition which proved elusive suddenly appears to be clear. One of my earliest strike points was watching Les Claypool whack his bass percussively to producing no melodic content but adding to the polyrhythmic lurch of “My Name is Mud”. Another were the natural harmonic notes picked between a detuned open E and its second on Machine Heads “Davidian”, or the double tap staccato snares that sound just after the phrase “Let freedom ring with a shotgun blast” sounding just like a pump action being primed before discharging, in this case into a groovy half time mosh out. In fact Burn My Eyes held multiple strike points for a boy raised on meat and potatoes metal, the lurching 6/8 rhythm of “Block” or the Oakland speed thrash insanity of “Blood for Blood”. Strike points are not unlike an affirmation of what you already know but have yet to hear, moments in which concepts and musicological hopes are ripped up out of the unconscious and explicated.

Psycroptic’s latest album, Inherited Repression, gifted me a number of strike points as I blasted it in the car the other morning. Less than midway into the first track there comes a melo-tech-death anti-melodic run that slides over the rhythm evoking a gnarly combination of Middle-Eastern and 8-bit video game tonal sensibilities. The rest of the album does not disappoint. Perhaps the biggest strike point on Repression is that as a tech-death album it favours songs with technicality over technicality with songs bolted on.

Repression is somewhat streamlined compared to its predecessors and song structures are brought into the foreground. Because of this there is somewhat more repetition of rhythmic and melodic ideas, but rather than sounding repetitive they contribute to a more cohesive, listenable sound. Even so, there is enough progression within the various ideas they are just not as extreme in their juxtaposition against each other. Psycroptic manage a brilliant balance between prog, heavy and accessibility and successfully beckon the listener back for repeated engagement.

Let me invoke a tr00-er than thou, elitist, kvltist, br00tal-est nerdrage tempest: Repression is absolutely fucking groovy. Tantrums will be thrown, tears shed and pointless blood will be spilt across the landscape of the Metal Archives, but I say fuck ‘em. Repression, with its taut guitar sound, relentless rhythms, multi-meters, deranged yet melodic harmonies and groovy post-re-thrash swagger like a royal rumble between Anata, latter day Death, Obscura, Meshuggah, Slayer and Pantera (sound the nerdrage alarums!). Strike me down, Repression is rad. Now if only they would put it out on vinyl. Sigh.

Survival of the sickest: An essay on Pestilence.

Evolution is an odd concept. It is not that hard to grasp: things in nature and culture are optimised over time to allow flourish under prevailing conditions. The problem is that it is impossible to see. Evolution, of the sort that Darwin prescribed, occurs on a temporal scale unfathomable to human perception. If a human life is eighty to ninety years and a new variation on a higher order bird, mammal or reptile takes at a conservative estimate ten thousand years to evolve, then a single human life represents less than one one-hundredth of the time taken. In other words, it would take a hundred humans living to a hundred years one after the other to be able to observe this new creature come into being. To make matters worse, a day in the life of said human represents 1/3,650,000th of the time taken. Now given that we rarely stay focused for more than ten minutes at a time, we could subdivide even further. But we won’t. Suffice to say the temporal scales of evolution and of humanity are at best, grossly mismatched. What makes this worse is that bacteria, viruses, micro-organisms and bugs outbreed and therefore out-evolve us at factors frequently exceeding 10,000, even millions to one. It is just not fair. However, there is consolation. A place where we can witness evolution on a far kinder, gentler scale: heavy metal.

As with Death and Cynic (have I still not written a review for Focus? For shame), I came to the Pestilence party late. Not only did I come late, but I started at the present, jumped to the future and then stealthily snuck back to the past. What is worse, Spheres is my favourite album. Pesteilence’s evolutionary course is an odd one. Starting out in the same period and aesthetic as Possessed, Sepultura and Slayer, they played hard, fast, grimy and mean proto-death, thrash metal. On Consuming Impulse the Netherlanders’ sound possessed enough viciousness and momentum to allow them to stand out from their peers. Then there were van Drunen’s psychotic vocals, an unfixed back alley knife stabbing between what had been thrash and what would become death metal.

Much of the short rhythmic phrasing that characterised Impulse was carried over to Testimony of the Ancients, but the dangerous whirlwind of sound was cleaned up in terms of production. Meanwhile Mameli and Uterwijk began to move away from solos based on divebomb chromaticism and instead toward Allan Holdsworth influenced minimalist, modal, liquid runs.

However, it was Spheres which caused the most controversy. Again, short-phrase rhythmic based riffing was brought to the fore but the guitars were starved and sickened through the fledgling zeitgeist guitar synth systems appearing at the time. Washes of atmospheric sounds, timbral experiments and subtle yet constantly evolving syncopated drum lines were brought into relief at the expense of savagery. What is most compelling about Spheres is that it is such a short musical statement and had it not sunk the band, pointed to an unexplored evolutionary side track.

Then comes the ill-fated Resurrection Macabre. After a sixteen year hiatus comes this curious, highly self conscious return to savagery. In some ways it sounds like a continuation of Consuming after the brief flirtation with prog on Testimony. In many respects, it totally ignores Spheres and literally blast beats the listener throughout. What underpins Macabre’s sound is Mameli’s flirtation with groove via his one off album as C-187 (that’s an album worthy of further reflection, perhaps Mameli’s most disliked work – ahead of even Spheres). The groove and hip hop lurch is subtle but evident and combined with the “old-man-doing-young-man’s-metal” re-acquaintance with speed caused a wave of bad feelings. As for me, I have loved Pantera since way back and frankly I cannot understand the widespread, predominantly malice to do with groove. Naturally, I consider Macabre to be a great ride.

2011 saw the release of Doctrine which recombined the new-found savagery of Macabre and softly serenaded the modal adventures of Testimony and Spheres while making use of super low, 8-string tunings to create sickening bass clef harmonies. Holdsworth was back but in a register he could never have imagined.

Pestilence’s evolutionary path was neither singular nor easy. They tripped, fell, broke bones, hid in the corner and even hibernated. Even after they gave up the band, they returned with new, adult sensibilities to continue making engaging and inspired metal. Perhaps that is what Slayer and Metallica need? Just shut up, go away and do something entirely different. Given the state of the music industry, I can see that it might be hard for Mameli and co to rationalise continuing on. I sympathise. However, if only next time they could take another wrong turn and end up in Spheres territory before hanging up their hats, I would be most happy. Here are fingers crossed.

Discombobulated Gaijin: Serial Extrapolatahs!

A recent encounter with immigration control at Narita Airport in Japan saw so-called journalist Chris Johnson lose his mind and his credibility in an online reputation feeding frenzy. Johnson’s claim was that Japanese immigration, staffed with foreigners improperly detained him, at gunpoint at one point, forced him to buy a ticket back home and impugned upon his human rights. What was fascinating about this whole affair was the degree to which he publicized his encounter with enough hyperbole, exaggeration and slippery almost-truths and somehow believed in this day in age that people would not notice. The usual suspects noticed, of course, the one time activist, now one sided crusader Debito did. So too did the Asian branch of The Economist online. They furthered his cause, consoled his burnt soul and cried against the injustice perpetrated against him. A circle of “gaijin” news watching friends and allies tightened around him and lent moral support. And then a few skeptics dared to chime in. Writers at Tepido and Fucked Gaijin and later again at Japan Probe noticed some inconsistencies, a number of the almost truths alluded to above and fatally, a number of outright lies that might at best be called distortions and obfuscations of the truth. Johnson did not help matters by creating multiple user handles at at least two different comment sections on different websites and exacerbated matters by embarking on a stunning self-censorship campaign: re-calibrating facts, removing claims and deleting tweets in order to smooth out a very lumpy, malodorous narrative.

As it stands, whatever the truth of his encounter at Narita, his multithreaded online exposition made very liberal use of a very broad definition of truth as what appears to be an exercise in self promotion. But I want to talk about something different.

Dipping back into the online “gaijin” world for the first time in years was a troubling experience. But first some context. There are numerous expatriate type support sites throughout the internet and each presents its own uniquely configured take on the reality of life in Japan for the foreigner. In the past this writer had daily frequented some of them and has cast an eye on many more. In addition to a wealth of information pertaining to daily life, these forums and blogs often have areas for venting, where expats have a chance to express their frustrations with cultural difference, linguistic isolation and in some cases, their first experience of being an ethnic/cultural/religious club member.

What has happened over the years is that some locations have come and gone, yet whether in presence or absence, the knowledge created within their boundaries has congealed into what I call “gaijin gospel”. Gaijin gospel refers to the body of knowledge created predominantly by non-Japanese speaking, most frequently Anglosphere, foreigners.

You will notice that I did not use the more formal or “correct” Japanese term for foreigner, gaikokujin. That is because the more informal, exclusive version gaijin, meaning “outsider” more accurately gels with the perspective that has been created over time. While not exactly on par with the word “nigger”Gaijin gospel is a peculiar phenomenon in that many of its proponents are transient, yet as a knowledge it continues to live on, quoted, ricocheted and tossed around the internet. Long after the gaijin gospeller has packed up and gone home his (usually male) perspective lives on and shapes future gaijin mindsets in the bodies of real, live, actual humans coming to Japan. Wave after wave of similarly inscribed or soon to be inscribed gaijin turn up every year to experience a particular version of Japanese culture which they then bring home with them. Rinse and repeat.

What I particularly want to touch on is the gaijin propensity for unproblematic transfer of uncritical universalism to a foreign cultural context. Put your knives away, modernists and post- haters, I’ll have none of that here, thank you. Accusations of relativism will not be permitted. You’re gonna need more than slogans around here.

What I mean is that there is a tendency for the gaijin to bring his (yes, him again) concepts of Law and Justice (admire those uppercase initials!) to Japan, as universal givens. That’s right, the West is best and to hell with the rest, right? No, wrong. You see, while elements of Japanese law and justice may well draw on Western tradition, the law and more importantly its application in the Japanese context could not be further from the truth. So when a gaijin finds himself on the wrong side of the law, for whatever reason, he (yeah, that guy) frequently appeals to the system/logic that he knows best: his own. The only problem is that his own, wherever it may be from and in spite of its protestations of universality, simply ain’t the law of the land. His usual range of responses, from bickering, violent confrontation, physical threats just do not work. Not only do they not work in a legal sense (try getting into a street/bar fight in Japan and just see who gets into the most trouble, regardless of “who started it”), they are also culturally inappropriate and serve only to land him in deeper trouble.

Distilled? You lose your cool, you lose.

Gaijin do not like to have their rights to liberty infringed. They can be very vocal (in English of course) in spite of remaining for the most part ignorant of the whole context. Remember when you were a child and in a dark room you could convince yourself of seeing a ghost if you tried hard enough? Just like that.

Occasionally you see signs like “Japanese Only” or “No Foreigners” in Japan. To the gaijin, these are red flags, a profound experience of segregation and discrimination on par with what happened in the lead up to the civil rights movement in the US and Aborigines being classified as human in Australia. He is outraged and emboldened to act, he steams, rants, boycotts and challenges the owner. Growl! Roar! But if he is sensitive enough, he might just notice context burbling up from a manhole nearby. Context is the history of action and actors in space and time. And context says that surely, there must be a reason for this sign. In fact, that reason can be most effectively summed up by a term found in the urban dictionary: gaijin smash.

Indulge me some cut and paste (edited for spelling).

Gaijin Smash

A technique used by foreigners, or gaijin, in Japan in order to impose their will on the Japanese.

"he upgraded himself to a first-class seat by using the Gaijin Smash"

The willful breaking of Japanese convention rules by one who is not Japanese (a foreigner cf. a gaijin)

I know its a red light, but I'm going to cross the road anyway, gaijin smash style.

I'm going to gaijin smash that red light.

To art of getting away with douchebaggery in Japan and being an ignorant obnoxious foreigner by simply pulling a gaijin smash on their Japanese asses when the shit hits the fan

"I was supposed to give up my priority seat on the train to that old bag but I totally gaijin smashed her ass and acted like I didn't know what the fuck she was bitching at me about"

The gaijin smash, coming to a bar, restaurant, convenience store, rented apartment, car dealership, school, workplace and even MacDonald’s near you. When you have one gaijin do his smash in a bar of twenty people once. That is an unpleasant evening. Then another one or even the same one does it again next week. Ninety-five percent or more of your paying customers are Japanese who have never once in your ten years of operation felt the need to do a “smash” of some sort, no matter how inebriated. They pay your bills, feed you, put the kids through school. That loud-ass gaijin on the other hand? Fuck ‘im. More trouble than he is worth. Let’s just ban them, then?

The sentiment is understandable. Unfair, but not impossible, even for the most ardent, pig-headed gaijin to accept. Now, if said smashing gaijin were to speak Japanese, return to the scene of the crime and sincerely apologise, the ban might well be lifted. After all, it was just a big misunderstanding. Who knows? But it is context that matters, not random events in a vacuum interpreted through a lens of universalism.

Indeed, it is this appreciation of context that endears me to living in Japan. So too the wiggle room in the law which places more emphasis on out of court reconciliation and less on minute encodings of acceptable practices into legal precedent. Japan might appear a very orderly society and that is because it is. But what the gaijin has failed to realize is that while social convention in Japan is overcoded, the law is not. This writer is not saying that Japan is problem free, or that it is some kind of utopia. This writer does, however, argue that a different concept of human rights and discrimination operates that differs from that created by the West for the rest.

So next time you get all red faced and angry, go home and study some kanji. Talk to the neighbour and take some knitting lessons at the community centre. You just might find that there is more to life in Japan than getting your rage on.

Here it is again, as an equation:

Engagement at a distance utilizing exclusive universalism demeans the recipient and diminishes the actor.