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.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

REVIEW: "Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy" by Cathy O’Neil

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy
by Cathy O’Neil
Copyright September 2016
Hardcover, 272 Pages 

An engaging read on the intersection between data science and politics, education, law enforcement, healthcare and more. The practical orientation of the book makes it a compelling read for data nerds and less mathematically inclined readers alike. This book is especially hospitable to those without prior knowledge in data science, with its conspicuous reader-friendly signposts amply situated throughout the text in addition to illustrative use of refreshing analogies. Newcomers to the world of big data will be astonished by the trove of fresh ideas and will enjoy a mentally stimulating read consisting of systematic and logical arguments coupled with an eclectic range of fascinating examples. 

Be cautioned that the author’s bold expression of distaste and “outrage” toward what she deems Weapons of Math Destruction (WMDs) and their associated injustices percolates through to her tone of writing and choice of citations, the reader is thus advised to harbor an open mind as he or she peruses the book and its arguments. Bluntly highlighting the ugly reality as the author perceives it and fearlessly questioning prevailing assumptions, the book rather effectively informs the reader of potential misuses and abuses of big data. 

The book as a cohesive whole reinforces the primary range of negative traits O’Neil attributes to WMDs. With reiteration, O’Neil communicates the opacity, non-transparency and unfairness of the mathematical models, their lack of humanity and indifference toward their predominantly poor and minority victims, their short-sighted predisposition for profitability and efficiency, and their untenable systems decaying from the paucity of error feedback. With the self-perpetuating nature of WMD-generated vicious cycles, compounded with ultimately inevitable errors bound to plague every statistical system, these penalizing models seemed ripe to cause catastrophic harm. 

The book covers a great assortment of WMDs. Amongst the more fascinating include those in the educational sphere, particularly one apparently linked to, and even incentivizes, the phenomenon of skyrocketing tuition—ranking models targeting institutions of higher education. Of a strikingly unwholesome goal a school could become entangled in is to take pride in rejecting increasing numbers of applicants; by doing so the institution lowers its acceptance rate and thus betters its ranking. School-to-school marketing is yet another curious trend the author ascribes to a school disproportionately committing itself to cosmetic goals of improving its overall reputation at the expense of genuine progress in educational excellence and quality. 

The criminalization of poverty by flawed predictive crime models such as PredPol, the exploitation of the ignorant through predatory advertising as exemplified by the Corinthian College scandal, and the contribution of the risk model attached to mortgage-backed securities to the disastrous 2008 financial crisis are some rather poignant examples of WMD-damage. Other interesting forms of WMDs discussed include workforce scheduling software, recruitment personality tests, credit card and insurance e-scores, recidivism models and more. 

The book also contains a delightful sampling of interesting non-WMD examples gleaned from the captivating world of data science. The marketing strategies employed by the Obama re-election campaign is one such example, with intriguing explorations of scored profiles of American voters which “not only gauged their value as a potential voter, volunteer, and donor but also reflected their stances on different issues.” Reflecting technological advances and trends in our contemporary society, the Facebook algorithm is an unavoidable topic, whilst the discussion of software systems enterprising to quantify characteristically non-quantifiable matters, such as employee generation of ideas, makes the reading experience even more engrossing. 

War metaphors used in the chapter titles are particularly fitting. With titles such as “civilian casualties,” “collateral damage” and “arms race,” they rather effectively reinforce the author’s strong stance and intent to paint WMDs as monumentally destructive. 

Depending on the individual, the reader may or may not be ruffled by the author’s occasional mocking statement—“People who favor policies like stop and frisk should experience it themselves,” a comment preceded by its supposed justification, “a crucial part of justice is equality. And that means, among many other things, experiencing criminal justice equally.”

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books for this review.