Saturday, 18 February 2017

REVIEW: "Playing with Religion in Digital Games" by Heidi A. Campbell, Gregory P. Grieve

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Playing with Religion in Digital Games
by Heidi A. Campbell, Gregory P. Grieve
Indiana University Press
Copyright April 2014
Hardcover, 314 Pages

A phenomenal critical work guided by a patently cogent intellectual vision. Engrossing from the beginning to the end and uniquely cohesive as a collective whole, this book is the commendable result of rigorous examinations of compelling issues intersecting the realms of religion and videogames. 

Perspectives, arguments and hypotheses in the book are conspicuously presented in incredible lucidity, effectiveness and accessibility. Along with adventures into the intertwining territories of religion and videogames, this book incorporates traces of religious studies, immerses the reader in various games’ rich narratives and intriguing fantasies, and emphasizes the versatile ingenuity of videogames. With delightful examination of videogames through the lens of religion, the avid and ambitious gamer can expect to level up his or her gaming vocabulary.

This book is great for religious, atheist and secular game scholars alike; the topic of religion is rather professionally, sensibly and neutrally handled. Scholars and students of all faiths would feel equally invited to engage whole-heartedly and academically with the contents of the book. I consider this book to be an excellent model for scholar-researchers, -writers and -editors venturing to publish a collective scholarly work; the structuring of and strategic role of each chapter in this book in contribution to the overall subject matter is strikingly ingenious. The nonbelieving general reader is encouraged to peruse the text with an open mind, and to guard against involuntary surfacing of cynicism and skepticism that might arise from reading content related to expressions and behaviors of religious faith.

Arguably the most excellent academic material in the book pertains to distinctions between various typologies of religious games, the look at the audiovisual, narrative and procedural layers of videogames separately through comparative examinations of American versus Arab games, and the practical application of the concept of “spiritual efficacy”—“an essential aspect of the implicit religious potential of games”—fascinatingly and methodically illustrated through the analysis of the videogame The Path

The clear distinctions established between the likes of allomythic games—that presuppose new religious landscapes—, theoptic games, digital didactic or praxic games and more are made all the more compelling with the range of examples provided. It is absolutely enjoying, the way Chapter 5 explored Islam through unpacking the narrative of the “European medieval travelogue” of the American game Age of Empires 2 in contrast to the “Arab prophetic literature,” the game Quraish, and thereafter explicating the elements contributing to for example, the humanization of Islam. The analyses of the elements forming and somewhat quantifying the notion of spiritual efficacy—flow, meditation, empowerment, disempowerment and morality—of The Path is astoundingly fascinating, achieved through meticulous consideration of factors such as the presence or absence of in-game moral systems, moral feedbacks, predetermined goals, elements generating “meditative states,” or availability for an avatar’s abilities to improve.

Comparably captivating and exceptional includes content dealing with ideas of religious “transcendent horror” explored through the games Silent Hill and Fatal Frame, of neomedievalism in fantasy role-playing games, and of the outstanding intellectual concept “mechanistic bias” as purportedly perpetuated to religion by the videogame medium. The very human fascination with supernatural horror makes the heart thumping investigation of fundamentalist Christianity in Silent Hill, and of the signifiers of Japanese Shintoism and Buddhism in Fatal Frame really captivating indeed. Another excellently argued hypothesis is the idea of the precise, reductionist and mechanistic approach of videogames in rendering religion, as manifested in the forms of “formulaic deities,” technological gods, the “strategic” religion, and the quantifiable faith, and which is eloquently said to result in “an impoverished vision of what religions mean to their adherents.”

Some religious controversies stirred by the gameplay or the virtual environment of certain videogames are compellingly covered. For example, the game Resistance: Fall of Man which was sued by the Church of England for purportedly desecrating the Manchester Cathedral in England through its virtual depiction of its ruins, and the game Hanuman: Boy Warrior based on Hindu mythology which instigated furor for supposedly empowering gamers to “control and manipulate” the Hindu deity Hanuman and thus “disrespect[ing]” and “trivializing” the deity. This book flawlessly boils down this topic of contention to the seeming irreconcilability of the notions of “interactivity” and that of “theological inevitability.”

Other ideas in the book are distinctly transformative and therefore precious. The positive empowerment of the gamer is absolutely valuable, for one to guiltlessly and whole-heartedly embrace videogames, by liberating the self from the mainstream stigma and condemnation of videogames as frivolous. With one’s consciousness being imbued with the alternative perspective that games and the act of gaming can be viewed as a “religion,” and as a medium simultaneously warranting fun and serious treatment, the gamer is freed to boldly accept that gaming can be an earnest venture and a meaningful pursuit in life. The book contains ideas for example, that indicate games to be not “unreal,” but instead to be “human worlds revealed to be symbolic universes accessible through a machine.” 

Another extraordinarily unconventional, convincing and fluently constructed perspective is as follows, “One could even argue that from the player’s perspective computer worlds are superior to reality in some respects. The example of Manchester Cathedral in the game Resistance: Fall of Man makes this clear. For players, the cathedral was more ‘real’ in its virtual representation than in the actual building in Manchester, because the game allowed the players to work in it in the Schutzean sense and thus make it part of their life-world. The building in Manchester had no reality for most of the players.”

Whilst religious purists and zealots likely might not peruse this book, it could still be necessary to highlight the rare statement or so that could potentially be taken wrongly by this demographic of readers. Atheists might nod their heads in agreement to statements proclaiming the close resemblance between religion and gaming, for example that religion is potentially as “unreal” as videogames, religious purists however might not take such insinuations amiably. The same could be said with regards to instances such as when the spiritual and virtual worlds are noted as “close cousins,” and to be “equally isolated from the material world’s play and prayer.” 

Hardline religious adherents might also not appreciate or even downright reject respectful and scholarly considerations of religion as a game, in the sense of “the game of religion” or “religion, as a game.” Other potentially problematic statements communicated the possibility of religion “devolv[ing] into assumptions of certainty where certainty does not exist,” and expressed notions that “we are increasingly enchanted with computers because they do what our religion has always done for us, but in some ways they do it better.” 

Though probably inconsequential and barely noticeable to the average reader, the book at one juncture however could possibly furnish an additional sentence or so to contextualize an example provided on game localization. In Chapter 8 “Filtering Cultural Feedback,” it was cited that the movement speed of the U.S. version of The Dirge of Cerberus to be “reportedly 1.2 times” faster than that of the Japanese version. The curious reader however is left wondering the rationale, whether cultural, technological or otherwise, which explains the disparity. Whilst the lack of an answer here is hardly tragic due to the introductory nature of this material as preceding the comprehensive core of the chapter, any refinement in the attention to detail in the book however could certainly leave distinct impressions in the minds of attentive readers or book reviewers. 

Considering the masterly fleshed out premise of gaming as “implicit religion” in the book, as an atheist, I just might adopt the religion of gaming from this moment on. 

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

REVIEW: "Parables of the Posthuman: Digital Realities, Gaming, and the Player Experience" by Jonathan Boulter

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Parables of the Posthuman: Digital Realities, Gaming, and the Player Experience
by Jonathan Boulter
Wayne State University Press
Copyright December 2015
Paperback, 168 Pages

Posthumanism and videogaming probed through the lens of philosophy and phenomenology. This episodically challenging read provides rather interesting and unique insights into the “machinic, posthuman” phenomenon and its play experience in digital play. Very well-written, this book structures its analyses and arguments through examinations of representative videogames such as BioShock, Crysis 2, Half-Life 2 and Fallout 3.

Parading its scholarly style of writing reinforced with rather substantial use of jargon, this book surely appears to primarily target philosophy scholars and students, game scholars, and potentially the game student. Though relatively short and compact, this book could be a challenging read for the non-philosophically educated reader, and likely formidable or even downright inaccessible for one without higher education. Readers of diverse professional backgrounds and especially avid gamers not repelled by the academic prose are absolutely encouraged to read this book. Certain nuggets of insights will preciously enhance the gamer’s understanding and even affinity for videogames. 

Some material in the book strike one as being marvelously excellent. The intriguing analyses of the element of the posthuman in Crysis 2, the rigorous examination of the idea of melancholia, and the exploration of the significance of the catastrophe and the apocalypse in posthumanism are absolute gems. The author asked distinctly thought-provoking questions such as “Is posthumanism grounded in the devastation of space and place?”, shrewdly highlighted the posthumanist irony of and contrast between the “devastated” and “torn down” virtual world against the “enhanced” game protagonist, and very aptly verbalized the notion of the unpleasant limitations of humanity and “lessness of this [real] world” as opposed to the virtual world.

Other ideas raised are positively and pronouncedly profound. The idea for example, of identifying the “true” narrative of a videogame, whether the “explicit” or the “hidden” narrative or otherwise, is truly fascinating. Similarly stimulating include the discussion of the application of the concept of “deterritorialization” in conceiving hypotheses pertaining to the avatar and the player-avatar relationship, and indication of the incorporation of “a morality system” into BioShock’s gameplay. The comparison of the “fantasy” videogames offer to “a kind of virtual tourism” is certainly intriguing, whilst attributing the constituent of the “faceless” and “voiceless” protagonist in a first-person game for successfully “placing the player in the closest psychological proximity to the agency of the avatar” is surely convincing. 

To his credit, the author beautifully vocalized factors that elucidate the appeal of videogames and the posthuman gaming experience. A diverse range of fantasies were noted—to transcend limitations of the biological, gravitational, physiological and even psychological; to enjoy a freedom from “singularity, the singularity of a limited and static subjectivity” of real life; and even to embrace “pleasurable” threats to one’s own identity or to fulfill one’s supposed “fantasy of loss.”

The reader might not agree with every statement or assessment made by the author; the analyses remain interesting nonetheless. The idea of the “very human desire to alter our ways of being, the very real desire to become other, and permanently” might be thought-provoking but not necessarily persuasive. The book is occasionally dry, with not all philosophical approaches discussed and elaborated upon to be equally engrossing, prompting one to sporadically skip ahead. The density and extent of jargon found in the book also seemed to make the text less accessible than necessary, thus potentially curtailing readership by excluding a certain demographic of readers who otherwise would have eagerly devoured the fresh and incisive perspectives offered. 

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

REVIEW: "Understanding Minecraft: Essays on Play, Community and Possibilities" by Nate Garrelts

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Understanding Minecraft: Essays on Play, Community and Possibilities 
by Nate Garrelts
Copyright September 2014
Paperback, 232 Pages

A piercing intellectual discourse on Minecraft and its identity as a videogame. Beautifully written, this scholarly book provides a multifaceted analysis of Minecraft—its mechanics, aesthetics, features, value and applicability—and theorizes the game’s appeal, popularity, uniqueness and success. Organized in compact chapters, discussions in the book are adroitly interweaved with the fields of education, psychology, literature, sociology and technology. The inclusion of interesting comparative assessments also allows the reader to gain additional understanding of a variety of other videogames. 

This book is accessible even for researchers, scholars and students who have never experienced or played Minecraft firsthand. Examinations of the game within the videogame canon is built upon the provision of foundational details of the game—its basic features, the idea of mods, the game’s developmental narrative, and its developer’s policies and vision. This book will also be a delectable treat for ardent gamers who enjoy engaging with critical and theoretical texts. Videogame neophytes can expect to be blown away by the expansive world of Minecraft, and be stimulated and inspired by the immense creativity and talent existing within the Minecraft community. For those who earnestly scrutinize the book’s contents, he or she could surely gain satisfaction from continuing to hone his or her game analysis skills and the ability to verbalize the virtues of videogames and the virtual world the games reside within. 

The book contains a sizable amount of content that spans from being magnificently fascinating to positively interesting. The discussion of Minecraft University as a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) in educational settings is one of the most engaging topics found in the book, along with the bold attempt to critically relate Minecraft’s virtual environment mechanics and gameplay dynamics to ideologies and issues of the natural environment in our world. Whilst some may dismiss the relevance or even prudence of relating the environmental discourse to Minecraft—where Minecraft was referred to as a “failed ecological game”—it is however incredibly refreshing and intellectually compelling to be exposed to the perspective indicating Minecraft as being antithetical to highlighting important issues of environmental exploitation and its consequences due to the state of its virtual world—as “a theoretically infinite world with inexhaustible soil and virtually waste-free resource conversion.”

The idea of the growth of the community of Minecraft animators and fan producers such as The Yogscast being spurred on by the game’s “narrative silence” or “blankness” is interesting, and the contrast established between the concepts of authenticity versus validity in videogame design is astounding. Observations on the correlations between player personalities—labelled “Curiosity,” “Tranquility,” or more—and their virtual behavior in Minecraft is another outstanding piece of information found in the book. The book is also bolstered with additional interesting content such as the role of Procedural Content Generation (PCG) and the necessary concept of “operational radius” in Minecraft; the range of tools and features of the game which reinforce the player’s autonomy, enhance the game’s universal accessibility, and reinforce its dual creative and survival modes. 

Going beyond expectations, an analytical portion of Minecraft was even corroborated with an intriguing literary citation, namely the book Eunoia by Christian Bok where “every chapter is written using only one vowel,” an example being the first line of “Chapter E” which went, “enfettered, these sentences repress free speech.” In line with the book’s literary qualities and as an instance of its beautiful writing, a sentence went, “In Minecraft, the player character literally spawns on the grounds of an imaginary and abstract wilderness that has been designed for colonization and exploration.”

The chapter “Look What Just Happened: Communicating Play in Online Communities” is rather lackluster, with its lack of academic rigor especially pronounced in contrast to other chapters in the book. Whilst the mention of the Player-Game Descriptive Index (PGDI) and simple demonstrations of its application in the discussion was somewhat interesting, the predominant discourse in the chapter about social dialogue in online communities was mostly descriptive and painfully lacking in insightful syntheses and analyses. Some of the cosmetic descriptions went, “Many responders provided mostly unhelpful comments. Some challenged or denied the validity of a question, without answering it or providing a contrasting remark. In response to a question of what others do to keep from being bored, one responder simply said that he didn’t do anything because Minecraft never got boring for him.” 

Though not perfect, this book as a collective and cohesive whole has surely convinced me that Minecraft is “indeed every nerd’s dream.”

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Sapphire Ng | Berklee Guitar Styles Skills - Jazz (Week 14) SPRING 2016 [Class Materials & Concepts]

Guitar Styles Skills - Jazz

Berklee College of Music
SPRING 2016 Semester

Class Teacher: John Baboian

[Week 14]

The tune we are jamming over today is "Freedom Jazz Dance" by Eddie Harris. John broke into a groovy rhythm and there we go. We played the melody and then as usual, every student had a go at improvising to the tune. And yes, John reinforced that our improvisations to this tune would be to utilize and play with "out" sounds and then resolving them appropriately. 

I noted however when I was learning the tune for the class, the version of the tune I found on Youtube by Eddie Harris was not notated the way it was in the lead sheet in terms of the number of bars a form of the tune occupied. I learned by matching the melody to his version of the tune. Right before the class, I actually listened to another version of the song by Miles Davis, and this one actually matches the lead sheet given to us with the approximately 2-bar rests between the first two licks of the melody. 

I was yet again surprised that after our first round of solos, John mentioned that some rhythm thing I did during my solo was cool/nice (I don't remember the exact word used LOL). And then he went on to say to the class that in cases where we could hear some repetitive rhythmic lines, in accompaniment it will be good to catch on to the soloist and match accordingly. 

Concepts/content covered in class:

~ We are given the lead sheet of "Freddie The Freeloader" by Miles Davis. It is observed that this tune is a 12-bar blues. At bars 11 to 12, the Ab7 chord is the bVII(b7) in the key of Bb. An option is to play the Ab Lydian b7 mode over the 2 bars of the Ab7 chord in the progression. It is noted as well that the Lydian b7 mode is the 4th mode of the melodic minor, and it is also equivalent to the D altered scale. 

[Interestingly, John mentioned certain things we can apply into this new tune from previously soloing to the tune "Freedom Jazz Dance." With the "out" sounds we were playing, we can similarly incorporate them when playing over the Bb7 chord in the progression, and then resolve them aptly. John emphasized though that despite we have relative freedom in the first 4 bars of the tune to play with "in" and "out" sounds the way we want, it is very preferable that we play the "in" sound when the Eb7 chord comes by in the 5th bar in order to "catch" the sound of the chord change, thereafter we also have the freedom to play "out" sounds in the 6th bar of the tune, which is the 2nd bar of the Eb7 chord. 

[We played the tune through together as a class, through the melody, improvisations, melody again, and then a tag ending. Haha I have to admit that when we were playing the melody through the first time, it sounded like I was the only person playing an octave lower than everyone else LOL. I'm glad I soon corrected that and started playing in a higher octave that matched other students in the class. As usual, we also ended the tune by repeating the last 4 bars of the tune another two more times, in the case of the melody, we would include and play as well the pick up note that was not technically included in the last 4 bars.

[John also mentioned a difference we may want to take note between "Freddie The Freeloader" and "Freedom Jazz Dance." Whilst the entire progression of "Freedom Jazz Dance" is made up of the Bb7 chord, "Freddie The Freeloader" on the other hand is simply a Bb7 "vamp" with a time limit. Haha.]

~ We were given "More Moving Lead Lines", and this handout focuses on comping. John mentioned that the notes notated simply referred to the top notes that we should incorporate into our voicings of the chords, i.e. "top note voicings." It was really awesome when John guided us through the voicings for the first section in the handout, the "Chromatic V7 > I"

[For "Chromatic V7 > I" we start with the C7 voicing right at 1st fret of the guitar fretboard that has the "C" note at the top of the voicing. We then moved a note to get the C7b9 chord in the 2nd fret with the "C#" note at the top. Next we yet again moved a half step up for the top note, playing a C9 chord with "D" note at the top, and so on. 

[At the 6th bar of the first example, John drew our attention to the alternative chords that he placed beneath the stave. He said that the Db7 chord would function as a chromatic approach to the C7 chord in the following bar, whilst the G7 would function as a dominant approach to the C7. 

[When we reached the last chord of the example, the Fmaj7 chord in the 9th bar, John showed us a "large" voicing. The voicing is played with a finger holding the 8th fret on the 6th string, holding the 10th fret on both the 5th and the 2nd string, and then the 12th fret on the 1st string of the guitar. Thereafter we had a short and quick exercise,  we were to move the exact voicing all the way down the fretboard to the 1st fret of the guitar. As expected or not, it could be way more challenging to play it there at the 1st fret because of the stretch involved. John said we could try to play it by maybe lifting our guitar necks more vertically, though he said that if we were to feel pain in our hand/wrist, we should stop holding that voicing immediately. Then we also moved the voicing where the bass note would be the "A" note on the 5th fret of the guitar.

[It sounded really good when John demonstrated all the three examples of top-note-voicing progressions for us, the "Chromatic V7 > I", the "Chromatic - Contrary Motion", and the "Cycle of Fifths - Contrary Motion". The sounds are really interesting. We should note as well the descending root motion for the progression in the second example/section of the handout, the "Chromatic - Contrary Motion."

[It was definitely fascinating when John later demonstrated playing the progressions in their minor versions, instead of major. He showed that we could "rhythmicize" the chords, playing them in interesting rhythmic patterns and timings that instantly made the progressions sound much more melodious. He also commented that learning to comp like this is important so that we guitarists can play like piano players, and ultimately to take the jobs away from the piano players hahahaha!]

~ The very last solo transcription available for us to choose to play for the final exams, and given out today is John Scofield's solo for "Stompin' At The Savoy." John briefly mentioned that when he heard the tune played on the car radio a very long time ago, he remembered being surprised to find out that it was John Scofield who played that solo, and he referred to it as being "un-Scofield." He also elaborated that it is always amazing to hear the more contemporary guitarists playing standards. And yes, we listened and enjoyed the audio together as a class. 

Class Homework:

~ "Freddie The Freeloader" by Miles Davis - Melody, Comping and Improvisation

~ "More Moving Lead Lines" handout

Class Materials/Handouts:

"Freddie The Freeloader" by Miles Davis

"More Moving Lead Lines"

 John Scofield "Stompin' At The Savoy" Solo Transcription

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

REVIEW: "How to Talk about Videogames" by Ian Bogost

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

How to Talk about Videogames
by Ian Bogost
University Of Minnesota Press
Copyright November 2015
Hardcover, 208 Pages

An entertaining book of videogame criticism overflowing with creativity. The author’s distinctive voice is unmistakably clear as the reader journeys through the discourse. Bogost eloquently and insightfully related videogames to realms such as history, ideology, gender, philology, race, and other visual media including cinema and film. Organized in relatively brief chapters and highly accessible, the book examines a great variety of videogames, oftentimes offering unconventional perspectives in the commentary.

The gaming and digital media student will discover in the book alternative and imaginative ways to analyzing and thinking about videogames, their significance and meaning. For the aspiring videogame critic, the author’s display of linguistic dexterity and originality of vision makes one fill with awe. Whilst the studious gamer could be expected to appreciate the opportunity to deepen his or her understanding and thus connection to videogames, the gamer disinclined to read on the other hand is encouraged to immerse in the book’s videogame commentary in order to better articulate the appeal of specific games or if just to be able to better vocalize his or her passion for videogames. For the reader generally unacquainted with the videogame world, it is recommended for him or her to accompany the reading with watching game trailers and even portions of gameplays available on YouTube in order to better contextualize and make sense of the discussions in the book. 

Discussions of the games Mirror’s Edge, Heavy Rain, Gone Home and Proteus are amongst the most captivating—from the environmental storytelling and spatial exploration in Gone Home and the “cinematic, murder-mystery videogame drama” Heavy Rain’s rejection of editing and use of mise-en-scene to profound interpretations of Mirror’s Edge, namely its intent to demonstrate the limitations of power through designing conspicuous character weakness. It is especially incredible how the seemingly simple exploration game Proteus could be the muse for one of the best commentary chapters in the book, where the game’s “imprecise, indeterminate visual style” does not have to be viewed as a negative but instead as an invitation for alternate ways of engagement. 

Rather unconventional and intriguing are the interpretations of the puzzle game Hundreds, the supposedly incomprehensible game Between, and the concept of sports videogames. The comment that Hundreds “exudes more design than it does game design” is telling. On the other hand, though it is relatively hyperbolic when the author considered sports videogames to be less a form of media on sports than “computerized variants” closely resembling sports and mostly differing from actual sports in the mode of execution, the incredible inventiveness of the thought alone deserves recognition.  

A particularly meaningful message is embedded in the text, one that attempts to communicate to gamers the virtue of having an open mind especially when it comes to games that do not manifestly conform to one’s expectations. By advising the gamer instead to appreciate a game for what it is and to try to rationalize the game’s state of being if interested, he or she could gain by experiencing a more enriching, and not to mention constructive, gaming experience. 

The author’s strong but sometimes unsavory and biting opinions could potentially turn readers off. By making possibly affronting statements in chapter 1—“We play games because games are stupid, like drawer pulls are stupid;” “For no matter how stupid it is to be a game, it is no less stupid to be a person who plays one”—the author risks losing readership. Whilst such comments are made supposedly in thematic response to discussions of the “stupid” game Flappy Bird, ardent gamers might just dismiss the book on the grounds of such tactless comments about games in general. On another note and depending on the individual, the reader might or might not consider it an overreach on the part of the author for brashly equating the revenue structure of free-to-play games to “swindling.”

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

REVIEW: "How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation" by Marc Bousquet

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation
by Marc Bousquet
NYU Press
Copyright January 2008
Paperback, 281 Pages

Dexterously written and strikingly thought provoking, this book examines deep-seated problems plaguing America’s academic labor system. Sprinkled with skepticism and cynicism, the author bluntly lay bare the paradoxes and ironies, abuses and superexploitations existing within the higher education economy and workplace. 

The academic writing, analyses and discussions make the book a worthy resource for education scholars and researchers, and a satisfactory read for graduate and undergraduate students. Though a potentially challenging read for the general reader, the book remains enlightening and even transformative for those who soldier on. Those unaligned with the author’s highly partisan stances could still potentially benefit from perusing the book; the unconventional and refreshing perspectives offered could expand one’s horizons.

Certain rather ironic and thought provoking assessments harboring specks of truth are most memorable. The successful attainment of the Ph.D. for many graduate employees for example, was said to mark “the end, and not the beginning, of a long teaching career.” With the onslaught of the practice of casualization, degree holding was also said to “increasingly represent a disqualification from practice.”

The author constructs an overwhelmingly somber depiction of the extent of student exploitation in the academic job market. Apart from coupling the identity of “youth” and “student” with contingent labor and availability for “superexploitation,” the author notably positioned students as maximally vulnerable at the hands of profit-minded institutions. The case study of the UPS earn and learn program is one such example—from the use of connotative phrases with negative innuendo such as “bait and switch” to refer to the actions of the firm, and blunt indication of the desirability of student workforces owing to their “cheapness,” “dependency,” “compliance,” and “ease of managerial control,” to highlighting the massive economical benefits enjoyed by UPS and its blatant disregard of, and even active conservation of, the abysmal working conditions for the students. 

The author’s critical tone did not abate when it came to highlighting the various injustices the university teaching staff is subjected to, both “economic and social violence,” and the imprudent actions and motivations of the corporatized higher education provider. The author accused the university, otherwise referred to as the “accumulation machine,” for favoring the “cheapest” teachers, employing “misleading” accounting to masquerade the true causes of rising tuition, for pursuing misguided priorities and distorted goals, engaging in superfluous competition in the provision of peripheral services, and spending “lavishly” on union-quashing legal services.

The author’s negative emotionality occasionally seeps through to the pages, further augmenting the unpleasant and gloomy overtone of the text. Though poignant, the rather visual metaphor comparing Ph.D. degree holders to “waste product” and “toxic blockage” might be tolerable. The author seemed to overreach however when he brusquely labelled as “excrement theory” the “Marie Antoinette or ‘let them eat cake’ theory of graduate education” supposedly promoted by graduate school administrators. 

Considering similarly the prevailingly unsavory and depressing contents of the book, even moderate citations of angst-ridden, indignantly angry and expletive-sprinkled comments by student-employees who worked at UPS suffice to turn the reader off. Additionally, the inclusion of further pieces of quotations irrelevant to the intellectual discussion, and occasionally logically unsound, makes the reading experience that more tiresome and distracts the reader from the pertinent issues. One such quotation went, “America needs no more cheese, ham, huge-ass boxes of summer sausage, holiday popcorn tins, or kringles….I think I’ve moved enough of these that every man, woman and child should already have one by default. No wonder obesity is an epidemic.”

Some repetition found within the book adds to the tedium of the reading experience. The repetition of earlier concepts and ideas, and even phrases and citations especially in chapter 6 could bore certain readers. On another note, it appears that the title of the book could have been better crafted to more accurately reflect the rather narrow scope of the text, the academically-oriented writing, and even the book’s rather bleak outlook. Be warned as well that for the reader in the midst of contemplating a career in academia, this book might rather effectively and essentially dissuade one from academe. 

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Sapphire Ng | Berklee Guitar Styles Skills - Jazz (Week 13) SPRING 2016 [Class Materials & Concepts]

Guitar Styles Skills - Jazz

Berklee College of Music
SPRING 2016 Semester

Class Teacher: John Baboian

[Week 13]

Class started with us playing "Witch Hunt" by Wayne Shorter, we played through the melody twice, and then we went on our solos. John reminded us that it would be great for us to play the melody at different octaves if we played the form more than once. I was the second to improvise today, and I was so surprised after my solo that John stopped the class to say that the 4ths that I'm adding into my improvisation transforms my solo, and that he thought I played well haha. Then the class continued with the rest of the students improvising, and as some were soloing, John would prompt them for example, "to play more 4ths". 

After everyone got a solo through the form of the tune, we returned to the melody and rounded up the tune by repeating the last 4 bars of the song. The first time we ended the song was probably not too coordinated, so John reminded us that most of the time when ending tunes we would play the last 4 bars of the tune as written in the lead sheet, and then repeat 2 more times. And then we were asked to attempt ending the tune smoothly again together, and yes we did. 

Concepts/content covered in class:

~ John handed us "Upper Structure Triads for Improvisation", as a technique for us to add tension into our solos. He emphasized the importance of resolution, and of the need to balance the "out" sound and the "in" sound. It may not be that a good idea to play the "out" sounds for a full 40 bars in a progression for example.  

[It sounded amazing when John demonstrated all the upper structure triads as notated in the handout. He had us pedal on the "C" note and play a certain rhythm with the pedal tone, while he went about playing and letting us hear the different sounds created from the different combinations. He played the C triad, then the Db triad, D triad and then Eb triad and so on, all the while highlighting interesting things to note. For example, when he played the Gb triad when we pedaled the bass "C" note, it gives an altered tone, and the tensions correspond to a C7(b5,b9) chord sound. And when he played the F triad or the G triad, yes he pointed out that that's the pop sound. 

[One interesting point John made was that as we play through these upper structure triads, it will be great for us to take mental notes and identify to ourselves which triad gives a more "out" sound compared to others, or which gives a subtler "out" sound and label them accordingly. For example, John mentioned that C/C is definitely the standard of the "in" sound, so we can refer to it as tension level 1, whilst Gb/C could be the most "out" sounding amongst all the upper structure triads, thus we can label it as tension level 5. Our task then would be to evaluate and decide for ourselves which ones could sound like maybe they are tension level 4, 3, 2 or even 5 or 1, and then choose accordingly when we are soloing. 

[For the 4-bar II-V-I example in the bottom half of the handout, John demonstrated the lines to us as well by having us play only the root note of each of the chords. And there we go, we have a different sound we can utilize to play over the G7 chord. 

[John went through everything else on that handout, and pointed out that "chord symbols with many tensions can often by written more simply as 'slash' chords." As further elaboration of the first sentence in the handout, John said that we do not necessarily have to use upper structure triads strictly, but we can play around it. Also, he mentioned that pedal tones work excellent in these circumstances.]

~ Next we were given "Upper Structure Triads - II V I", and John as usual demonstrated all the lines in the handout, and pointed out that the diatonic first example in the page is provided as a "reference" point of some sort to let us hear the "out" sounds of the rest of the lines more clearly. 

~ And then we proceed to the handout "Triadic Sequences", with John mentioning that these are "Symmetrical" triadic sequences where there's consistent intervals. We were then "quizzed", or rather asked, on the possible number of "permutations" we can have for Chromatics, Whole Tones, Minor Thirds, Major Thirds, and Tri-Tones. The answers are available on the handout itself haha, and as it turns out, there are 12 permutations for Chromatics, 6 for Whole Tones, 4 for Minor Thirds, 3 for Major Thirds, and 2 for Tri-Tones. And "permutations" in this case does not mean how many, for example, Whole Tone scales exist because a student mentioned 2 for Whole Tones, haha but it's not applicable in this case. 
[John mentioned that often we would hear these in jazz trios, 
without a piano player, and as played by the guitarist. For example, John Scofield, Mike Stern and Pat Metheny in jazz trio situations would be able to incorporate these into improvisations. And John hilariously emphasized the importance of not having pianists in these situations, as the guitarist would then have greater freedom to explore, and in addition to that if the bassist plays a pedal tone, the guitarist would really have all the space he wants to express and explore.] 

~ We were given the lead sheet of "Freedom Jazz Dance" of Eddie Harris. And as this song only has one chord, the Bb7 chord, it is a great song to explore improvising with "out" sounds. 

~ We were given the solo transcriptions of Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny to the tune "All The Things You Are", where both transcriptions are available as options for the final exam. John played the audio of both transcriptions for us, and discussed their differences. John mentioned that it is particularly amazing that the two versions are so different especially when they were actually recorded only a couple of months apart. Whilst it is said that Pat Metheny's solo emphasizes chops, Bill Frisell's solo is not about chops. Bill Frisell utilized the volume pedal and digital delay, and his improvisation has much greater emphasis on melodic and harmonic content in contrast to Pat Metheny's. John commented that though Pat Metheny's solo sounds difficult, it is actually easier than it first sounds, the only thing is that it is fast.

Class Homework:

~ "Freedom Jazz Dance" by Eddie Harris - Melody, comping and improvisation 

Class Materials/Handouts:

"Upper Structure Triads For Improvisation"

"Upper Structure Triads - II V I"

"Triadic Sequences"

"Freedom Jazz Dance" by Eddie Harris

Bill Frisell "All The Things You Are" - Solo Transcription

Pat Metheny "All The Things You Are" - Solo Transcription

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

BLOG TOUR: "Secrets From the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again" by Traci Mann

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Secrets From the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again
by Traci Mann
Harper Wave
Copyright January 2017
Paperback, 272 Pages

An effortless and quick read. Informative and packed with interesting empirical studies and research. Refreshing insights and findings are presented along with simple and yet practicable strategies. A pleasant read for both dieters and non-dieters alike, with an emphasis on informing and empowering those grappling with weight issues. 

Mann coherently tackles the various myths and misconceptions that plague the weight loss industry. She persuasively argues that dieting is counterproductive—dieting strengthens the brain response to “images of food and to actual food” and causes the deterioration of one’s impulse control—, convincingly debunks the myth of comfort foods, and analytically highlights the disproportionately inflated health risks of obesity. She continues by cogently elucidating biological and evolutionary rationales underlying weight regain, and cites studies challenging the exaggerated role of willpower in “resisting highly tempting foods.”

Explorations of food labeling, with fascinating and occasionally ironic findings, represent one of the more interesting areas of studies incorporated in the book. It is apparently an unwise strategy to include labeling that explicitly declare certain foods as “healthy.” On the other hand, an example of a rather surprising but intriguing studies-based assessment found in the book is as follows, “Your life expectancy is about six years shorter if you have initials F.A.T. than if you are fat (class I obese).”

This book delightfully covers a further assortment of absorbing content and concepts. Learning about perceived flaws of prevailing diet studies and the concept of weight cycling is beyond enlightening. Mann’s candid spotlighting of the poignancy of weight stigma and discrimination additionally prompts reflection. The shaming and negativity to which obese people are subjected plunges them further into the vicious cycle of weight gain. Glimpsed as an attempt to speak up for the obese populace, Mann even produced shocking findings that bluntly display the prejudice against overweight people by obesity researchers and doctors, members of society obligated to care for, and supposedly more empathetic and sympathetic toward, obese patients.

Of the sampling of functional strategies provided in the book to guide the reader to attain his or her “leanest livable weight,” a particularly intriguing one included adopting an abstract and general versus a specific and detailed pattern of thinking about temptation foods. Mann further acquaints the reader with what she calls the “i-intentions” statement, and other strategies cleverly based upon proven social psychological theories, for example the pressure to conform in eating patterns. 

In line with Mann’s powerfully healthy and positive message to dieters and non-dieters alike, it is fitting that she wrote, “Eating is not a moral act,” and that “there is no cause for guilt or shame about things you eat.” I will venture to surmise that Mann would probably consider her book a greater success should the reader/dieter come away liberated—spiritually, psychologically and physically. 

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours for this review.