… Because they are so much more Dudalicious. In honour of the David Gilmour (not the guitarist!) school of teaching, from now on I will only use statistical techniques designed by men. Sure, I could use Generalized Linear Latent and Mixed Models (GLLAMM), but just listen to the name of the damned thing. It’s like the Jane Austen of stats, and unsurprisingly it was developed by a woman (Sophia Rabe-Hasketh). Hardin and Hilbe just had a much more indefinably cool … manliness … about them, so I think for clustered binomial or count data I’ll just wing it with Generalized Estimating Equations. Luckily I don’t do much in the way of RCTs, because the classic text on experimental design by Cochran and Cox is half-authored by a woman – I can’t tell which bit she wrote so I’ll just have to dump the lot to be sure. This could be a bit tricky, because that stuff is pretty fundamental to how we think about efficiency in experimental design. No problem really, though, I’ll just make sure I apply for bigger grants and recruit more subjects. Typical of a woman to write a book about how to be thrifty with sample sizes really, isn’t it? Real men just recruit more subjects.

David Gilmour also doesn’t like Chinese authors, so if I’m going to follow his approach I’ll probably have to drop any adjustment for probability sampling, since a lot of the development work for those methods was conducted by Indians after independence. That shouldn’t be too bad because there are still some low-grade journals that let you publish without adjusting for your sampling process. Of course, to be sure I think I should develop a few stock phrases to deploy in explanation of why I’m avoiding certain methods:

Although region-level variables were available, they were not incorporated in this analysis because the methods required were developed by a woman

or

To avoid feminization of statistics, the clustering effects of school and classroom were not adjusted for in this analysis

and maybe

Probability weights were not incorporated into the analysis, because that method was developed by Indians

I’m sure the peer reviewers will appreciate that, but just to be sure I’ll be sure to specify in all submissions that I not be reviewed by women. That should cover it.

Now, some of you might suggest that I should just relax and use all the techniques available to me, or at least not go through the canon with a fine-toothed comb checking the gender of every contributor – I mean, couldn’t I just drop the techniques only if I find out that they were written by a woman, without active screening? A kind of passive case-finding approach, if you will (but can I employ case-finding – it may have been invented by a woman. I should check that!) But this is not how the David Gilmour school works. You have to assess your authors first and foremost on their cool manliness:

Chekhov was the coolest guy in literature. I really think so. There’s a few volumes of his there, what a great looking guy. He is the coolest guy in literature; everyone who ever met Chekhov somehow felt that they should jack their behaviour up to a higher degree.

And really, when you look at the kinds of canon that are taught in English at high schools and first year uni courses, it is quite often the case that they are all (or almost all) male. Every statistician knows that those kinds of imbalances in a sample don’t happen by accident – that’s a deliberate selection bias. If it’s good enough for dudely English teachers it’s good enough for me, so I think from now on I should screen out any beastly feminized stats. Sure, you can’t get into any half-decent journals if you can’t use GLLAMM and good experimental design, but I say hell to that. It’s time to fight back! Men-only stats for the win!

In case anyone thinks I’m being serious[1], there’s been something of a storm of controversy about this David Gilmour chap, and I think you can see how stupid his approach is if you imagine trying it in a technical field. Stats being part of maths, it has its fair share of chick lit, but it is still male dominated; nonetheless, if you screen out the main work done by women, you suddenly lose a huge range of tools and techniques that are essential to the modern statistician. Surely the same applies in English literature, but moreso given the huge role women played in the development of the novel. Check this Crooked Timber thread for more entertaining take-downs of this position (with some prime grade Troll Meat thrown in the mix). It really is outstanding on so many levels that a literature teacher would judge who to teach in such a juvenile Boys Own Manual way; that they would take their responsibilities so lightly as to think that their sole task was to teach students their own opinion rather than … something useful … and that they would not try to hide it behind some more mealy-mouthed apologia. I mean really, there are a lot of very good female writers in the last two centuries and yet people like this David Gilmour chap manage to construct a syllabus without a single woman in it. Usually their argument would be along the lines of “I judge on merit” but you do have to wonder, don’t you? And then along comes a naif like Gilmour and makes it completely clear how these canons are really constructed – the women are screened out from the get go.

fn1: I really hope not, but this is the internet.

Today we heard word of a scandal overtaking the modern Tokyo phenomenon of AKB48. Their 14th most popular member, Minegishi Minami, was caught by a journalist leaving the house of a “boyfriend,” a 19 year old member of some random boy band (compared to AKB48, the boy band in question is largely irrelevant). The pictures were published in some scandal rag, Shukan bunshun (週刊文春), a magazine which basically makes its income from printing shit. As a result of this indiscretion, Miss Minegishi has been demoted to research student (kenkyusei) status, meaning a massive loss of pay and  that in the strange heirarchy of AKB48 she will have to climb back up the ranks to reclaim her position as an enormously popular public figure.

The heart bleeds, doesn’t it? Actually the apology is a beautiful and heartfelt thing, and it’s clear that Miss Minegishi is under a lot of pressure, as one might expect if one were published leaving the house of one’s lover the morning after a trist and published in a magazine read by millions of people, in a country where everyone (well, not me!) is watching you and discretion in sexual encounters is paramount. This is a nation where holding hands in public is still frowned upon by many young people, and kissing generally avoided at all costs. Being photographed the morning after a shag is obviously going to be very embarrassing.

AKB48 sold $200 million of records alone in 2011, and endorse everything from elections to instant coffee. They are the very definition of a household name, and getting into the top 48 of this weird little business enterprise is a license to print money for the young women involved. It’s also not easy: their recent documentary carries the subtitle no flower without rain, which draws on an old saying about how beauty and/or success depend on suffering. The structure of the AKB48 system is redolent of university and the early years of the corporate system: it is intended to reproduce the sense of having to strive to make it, being indebted to one’s seniors, and being vulnerable in the face of life’s challenges. In many ways, AKB48 are perfect representatives of the Japanese notion of gaman, of having to suffer through adverse circumstances to achieve: this is the same spirit of gaman that enables Judo masters to bully their charges[1], but which makes a Sumo wrestler like Takanoyama enormously popular because he tries so hard. Two sides of the same coin … I don’t know if it could be said that Miss Meinegishi is being bullied in this instance, though … what she did do is fall foul of a contractual obligation not to go on dates. That’s right – AKB48 girls are not allowed to go on dates! The Guardian article makes it appear as if this rule is based on “the strict rules to which Japan’s young pop stars must adhere to project an image of unimpeachable morals” but this isn’t the reason at all – that’s just bullshit western misinterpretation of east Asia’s so-called conservatism. The real reason that Miss Minegishi has to live a sexless (or at least secret) life until she “graduates” from AKB48 is that her band is idolized by nerds and pre-sexual teenage girls, and to both groups of fans they have to appear pure and single. These are girls next door who are struggling through a metaphorical high school/university/early corporate life, and girls like that don’t get DP’d in love hotels.

Miss Minegishi’s extreme haircut is also not forced on her by her contract: she did this all by herself, to symbolize her abasement. This means she’s going to be trying extra hard to regain the favour of her fans, and my prediction is that this little cock up is going to be a goldmine for her and for the AKB48 business: she’ll soon be returned to the top ranks, fans will love her more for having fallen and strived, and there’ll be another documentary with tears and struggle – a genre that AKB48’s fans love.

Which brings me to my William Gibson-esque point: these girls are Japan’s modern shrine maidens, the modern equivalent of western nuns of yesteryear. They’re required to swear themselves to celibacy, live lives of constant self-flagellation and torment, and simultaneously have to symbolize everything that is admired in the women of their time: chastity, beauty, sexiness, innocence and endurance. They also have to tread the line of hypocrisy that characterizes modern attitudes towards young women: at the same time as they are making swimsuit videos and soft porn, these girls will get demoted if they are caught having sex. And because it’s Japan they also have to be educated: there’s currently a TV show about some of these girls going to college and trying to get a qualification. William Gibson has a few short stories about these kinds of characters in the cyberpunk world (I think Idoru is the most apt, though I haven’t read it): women whose celebrity depends on their embodying all of the ideals of femininity of their time, and whose personal lives are warped or ruined as a result of it. So let’s hear it for Minami Minegishi, embodiment of all the trials and tribulations of modern womanhood – and of the complexities of the cyberpunk era. Ganbare, Minegishi san! The hopes of a generation, and the weight of an entire society’s sexist expectations, are resting on your skinny shoulders …

fn1: though maybe not anymore: watch the video of the coach apologizing and listen to the cameras – the girls he bullied weren’t willing to tolerate it and his humiliation is pretty much complete. These guys’ world is changing, and it’s apparent that they aren’t catching up…

This week Crooked Timber seems to be on a bit of a thanksgiving roll, and has various commentaries on the greats of the revolution and the civil war, mostly negative. In amongst them is a nasty little piece on Thomas Jefferson as prototypical fascist racial theorist, which is stirring some aggressive debate. As always there’s some really interesting material in the comments, and it appears that some genuine historians of that era are stalking the comment thread, dispensing their wisdom. At the same time, various defenders of Jefferson are rocking up and throwing stones, and I note that (rightly or wrongly) the response over there to the suggestion that one of the founding fathers was a racial essentialist is very similar to the response that I sometimes see here to my accusations that Tolkien’s work presents a model of inter-war or Nazi racist theory. We get quotes from his letters presented as proof against his public utterances; we get elision of the central question of the debate (did the man propound a racist theory?) with other, less relevant questions (was he a bad man?); we get accusations that it’s all just do-gooding liberal self-haters hating; we get told to leave off because he was just a product of his time[1]. Admittedly the debate as presented there is simultaneously murkier and clearer: Jefferson’s writings are political writings, and he held political influence, so any racial theorizing in his writings is rather more relevant to black people in America than anything in Tolkien’s; but at the same time Jefferson enacted good laws to free slaves, so we have to find a way to understand the laws in light of the speech, and this is not a problem that applies to Tolkien. But I sense that a certain proportion of the American populace, including academia, hold the founding fathers in a similar degree of reverence to that with which the nerd world holds Tolkien, and for those people the challenge of reconciling Jefferson’s private words with his public acts induces a level of distress that is interesting to observe, and I think similar to the distress some nerds feel when they realize that their central, canonical text is also a racist guidebook.

For my lights, I haven’t a clue about Jefferson and I don’t think the founding Fathers should be held in any esteem – we’re 300 years past their due date and the constitution they wrote is a flawed business, as is the Republic they founded. But the debate is interesting[2], and it seems that Jefferson’s defenders can’t cope with the central thrust of the post, which is that Jefferson believed it right to free slaves, but was preparing a quite unpleasant racial theory to justify nasty measures in the aftermath. There’s a lot of evidence presented in comments that having unpleasant views about black people is not inconsistent with being opposed to slavery, so for example Lincoln is quoted as having said:

I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which in my judgement will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality… I agree with judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects – certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man. (emphasis in original)

I think that this kind of position – standing up to your fellow racial equals for the rights of people you think are inferior, in a situation that is rapidly heading towards war – is an enormously brave and noble undertaking, although the stupidity of the beliefs presented there should be self-evident in the modern age. But it shows that we can judge people of previous eras by our modern lights: Lincoln, though he thought black people inferior to whites, still understood the importance of compassion and basic dignity, and his actions and words show that it is possible to demand a certain basic universal compassion at all stages of history. And from what’s written in the main post, it’s not clear that Jefferson was on board with that compassion, and his defenders aren’t able to make a clear argument to state that he was[3]. This is rather disappointing for an academic blog, but not unexpected given the topic.

Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see that similar defensive strategies appear in both debates. I guess it’s a universal hallmark of the fanboy …

fn1: though Chris Y at comment 24 deals with that nicely:

Samuel Johnson also: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

fn2: There’s a cute side-note about Washington in the comments, that players of my Compromise and Conceit campaign will love: during the retreat from New York the British evacuated all their black allies, and Washington, charming soul that he was, made repeated demands of the British that they leave behind “American property” (i.e. several thousand human beings). That’s exactly what the Washington in my campaign would have done too, had he lived. Or perhaps in suing for peace he would have demanded the repatriation of his “property.”

fn3: Though neither his defenders nor the writer of the post seem to be interested in making an effort to reconcile the conflicting opinions Jefferson seemed to hold, which I would have thought was a key part of the task of defending or damning him.

In today’s Guardian is an article by Naomi Wolf that attempts to link the growth in anti-abortion laws in the US to its imperialist foreign policy. A lot of feminists poo-poo Naomi Wolf as “feminism lite” or politically suspect (I think this having something to do with a prior excursion into the US’s overly-fraught abortion debate), but although I don’t often agree with her I think she’s worth reading, and has some interesting ideas. She also, as in this article, occasionally manages to look beyond the interests of middle class Americans when discussing feminism and politics, and I think that’s rare, so it’s worth reading. In this article she attempts to suggest that the US’s enactment of draconian and oppressive policies overseas is coming back to bite women domestically, as the state begins to enact domestically the same kind of surveillance and control laws that it has been using overseas. In support of her argument she gives this historical example from Imperial Britain:

I had an “Aha” moment recently in Oxford. I was speaking about the British Contagious Diseases Acts – legislation passed in the 1860s that caused thousands of women be arrested and locked up for up to eight months at a time for looking as if they might have had sex. A graduate student asked me, perceptively, if I had looked at this issue in relation to issues of empire at that time, and another student noted in response that imperial British forces had, at around the same time, set up a complex and expansive equivalent of “lock hospitals” to incarcerate and manage prostitutes in colonised regions.

This is an example of policy trialed overseas (“lock hospitals”) and then implemented locally. But I don’t think that her example is a correct interpretation of the Contagious Diseases Act or its purpose, and I think her overall thesis is wrong in its broad strokes and its precise details. Specifically: Imperialism is not a kind of sympathetic magic that corrupts its originating body; and (more relevantly) the US does not have an empire. Let’s tackle each of these points in turn.

Was the Contagious Diseases Act an imperial import?

I would dispute Wolf’s interpretation of the Contagious Diseases Act (CDA), which did not aim to arrest women who “looked like they had sex.” It was aimed at sex workers, and the targets of the law were women who looked like they were soliciting or had been soliciting sex: poor women out alone at unsavoury hours. This law’s victims were Thomas Hardy’s women, not Jane Austen’s. We shouldn’t confuse the act’s main female opponents (high-born women) with its main female victims (sex workers and poorhouse girls). I wrote a post some time back about the CDA and its subsequent reincarnations, and it should be clear that its intended target was poor women and sex workers, and its purpose, though fundamentally nationalist, was not directly related to the imperial project: it was aimed at protecting the moral health of the nation. If we look at other nations of the same era, they were equally obssessed with this nebulous concept, without having any imperial projects under way: Japan at that time was pursuing a policy of isolation for “the health of the nation,” which is precisely as far removed from imperialism as it’s possible to get. We also don’t need to go looking for secret imperialist influences on the CDA: its motivating moral force, and the concerns underlying it, were clearly stated in the public utterances of its supporters, and though they had a lot to do with national power they weren’t necessarily directly linked to imperial projects. It may be that the authors worked out how to run it from the experience of colonial officers, but that’s not proof of anything more than bureaucratic experience. Which brings us to the second problem with Wolf’s thesis: the idea of imperialism as exerting a corrupting influence on the culture of the core.

Imperialism is not sympathetic magic

Although it’s tempting to present a moral argument against institutions like slavery, mass incarceration and imperialism by arguing that they corrupt the body politic through the evil deeds that they demand of society, I don’t think the argument is actually realistic. In the case of imperialism, it’s perfectly easy to see historical examples of empires where the periphery was largely left to itself or managed quite independently of the politics of the centre (Rome springs to mind), or where the periphery could have a lot of political and economic freedom provided it didn’t rebel – I think British India is an example of this. The soviet empire could probably safely be said to have done nothing so bad in the periphery as it had already done to its own people in the centre, so it can’t really be said that the actions at the periphery changed the politics of the core for the worse. Aside from a couple of weeks in 2007, it can’t be said that Britain ever experienced the kinds of harsh policing measures developed so effectively in Northern Ireland between 1967 and the early 1990s; nor would it be fair to say that the only cultural imports from the colonies to Britain were negative racial and political segregation or oppression – much of the cultural flow was positive. Furthermore, British actions towards the Indigenous peoples of Australia and New Zealand, which occurred in roughly the same historical period, were completely different in both policy justification, implementation and outcome. Why, if the repressive policies of the colonies affect the political framework of the colonizer, did Britain not implement the same policies in two neighbouring countries at the same time? Britain’s colonial policies were never so centralized or monolithic – they were determined on the basis of local conditions, available manpower, political support, practical value and the personalities and political conditions of the local administrators. This is why New Zealand never received the punitive treatment meted out to Ireland, or the patchwork genocide planned for Australia. Finally, and most relevantly, if we concede that the USA maintained some kind of empire in the 19th century (in the Phillipines and Central America), it’s hard to see how the people there were treated worse than people in the USA. There was no widespread institution of slavery, and the only genocide I’m aware of the US ever practicing was in the USA itself. It’s not like they got the idea of exterminating the natives from their projects in the Philipines. I would go further and say, imperialism doesn’t corrupt the imperialist: the imperialist must have been already corrupted to think of such a thing, and anyone who thinks that stomping another nation into the dust for your own gain is likely to be willing to overlook a little collateral damage in his own backyard too.

The experience of many colonial powers is that the politics practiced on the periphery never comes back to the core in any meaningful way, and in more recent times it has been essential, in fact, to hide the worst excesses of the colonial branch of government, lest people begin to feel squeamish about the program. From about the mid-19th century onward, people wanted to believe they could have the material benefits of empire without suffering the political and cultural costs that Naomi Wolf wants us to think were inherent in the project, and governments went to great lengths to ensure that this happened. Why should modern America’s “empire” be any different? But then, does modern America have an empire at all?

Does America have an empire?

If you listen to the right people, you’ll soon discover that almost all of America’s foreign policy actions can be explained by its imperialism. But does America have an empire, and is “it’s the imperialism, innit?” a good approach to understanding America’s (generally terrible) foreign policies? I differ from a lot of my bleeding-heart, do-gooding, pro-gay-abortion islamofascist leftist brothers on this issue: I don’t think the USA has an empire and I don’t think “imperialism” explains its actions. Imperialism is a bad habit of old nations, not the new world: we have our own problems, and we’re certainly not immune to the temptations of territorial acquisition (see e.g. Indonesia), wars of choice (America) or wars for political convenience (Australia) – but we don’t generally engage in imperialism. Sometimes America’s foreign policy delivers outcomes (such as in Iraq) that look like imperialism, but that’s just a coincidence. And sure, there are probably some far, far right loons in the USA who don’t see anything morally wrong with establishing an American empire, but they almost certainly would think it’s too much trouble and in any case they don’t represent America or American politicians. If we could characterize America’s motives more realistically, it would be as a nation that wants to establish the right to do whatever it wants whenever and however it wants. So, sometimes this means being able to act like an imperialist (Iraq), an arsehole (Grenada) or an interfering little shit (most of Central America) but this is not the same as imperialism. One could probably talk about American cultural and trade empires, but that’s a different use of the E-word. Basically, America has established a pre-eminent place in the world through good deeds (WW2) and bad (Vietnam, etc.) and through a remarkable 100 years of dynamism and wise decisions (let’s not overlook this!), and in order to protect its position will sometimes do terrible things. But it doesn’t currently have an empire, nor does it have anything even remotely resembling imperial policies in its periphery that could be imported to the core or even influence it much. A few seedy and unpleasant policies enacted in areas beyond the rule of law (Afghanistan and Yemen) do not constitute an institution, either. We’ll

So what is it with all this loony anti-choice stuff?

What this means is that America’s domestic political problems are the result of its domestic political culture[1]. I am no expert on US politics or culture, but my guess would be that the upswing in anti-abortion laws in the US simply reflects a combination of growing religious feeling, the fruits of 20 years of right-wing dominance of political forums in the states, and – probably most importantly – the coalescing of grassroots right-wing activism around a large amount of elite money. In order to get their free market and anti-AGW politics widespread, certain political interests have funded a strong right-wing movement and been more than happy to overlook its religious and racist fringe. This is naturally going to have some consequences in social policy.

An alternative explanation – and the one that I suspect Naomi Wolf is building up an intellectual edifice to protect herself against – is that a lot (or a majority) of Americans are genuinely, deeply committed to an anti-abortion politics, that this is their real heartfelt belief, and they take the issue seriously enough to be willing to pay a political price (in supervision of women’s behavior) to get their way on the issue. Although to me the contrast between the pro-life movement’s stance on abortion and war is hypocritical and sickening, I don’t think there’s any cognitive dissonance or intellectual challenge to holding these beliefs, and I don’t see a need to come up with a complex story of sympathetic cultural magic to explain the apparent contradictions within the right-wing anti-choice movement[2]. In fact, I find the left-wing anti-choice movement much harder to comprehend. So Naomi, rather than looking to your country’s nebulously-defined foreign policy imperialism as an explanation, look somewhere simpler: you need to find a way to change your compatriots’ minds on abortion. You probably won’t, but that’s not the fault of imperialism or George Bush: it’s because a lot of Americans deeply believe something you don’t.

A final note on imperialism and role-playing

Obviously this blog has branched out a little from talking about only RPGs in the last two years. This is partly because I like having a forum to talk about whatever I like, and it’s my blog so I’ll do what I want; it’s partly because I’m not doing so much role-playing now I’m so busy. It’s also partly because my framework for analyzing cultural stuff (both within the fantasy/rpg world and outside of it) is heavily influenced by post-colonialism, which is I think quite a natural perspective for a modern Australian (though I don’t claim it’s the only one). But bear with me: I think imperialism and colonialism are relevant topics in the gaming world, in the sense that a lot of fantasy RPGs and fantasy literature are set in a world where colonialism and imperialism are either good things or accepted, and quite often colonies are a core part of the story. In fact recently I saw an advert for a new computer game with the slogan “Explore, Exploit, Exterminate.” So whether peripherally (through the culture that influences the games) or directly (through game settings) I think imperialism and colonialism are still relevant cultural concepts in the fantasy world. In building our worlds and understanding other people’s game settings and worlds, these concepts can be relevant and interesting.

fn1: Here at the faustusnotes academy of political science, we love to state the obvious in 1000 words or more.

fn2: I would also go back to my previous comment about my disagreement with my islamofascist brothers, and suggest that if “imperialism” is your explanation for a political problem in a new world country, you haven’t thought about the problem enough. It’s probably something else.

I have always had a strong suspicion that the Pink Floyd song Wish You Were Here is a homage to Ivan Denisovich, the fictional figure of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s famous novel of the same name. This possibility doesn’t become clear until you’ve churned through Solzhenitsyn’s opus – A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Gulag Archipelago, and The First Circle at the minimum – because the references are oblique and cunning. They’re not so sneaky that I couldn’t ferret them out in Year 12 of high school, when I was obssessed with Pink Floyd and doing a full review of Solzhenitsyn for my special topic in English. Do a search on the internet and you’ll find all sorts of theories about what the song is really about, but they’re all wrong, because it’s about the Soviet prison camps and particularly, about the injustice visited on Soviet soldiers returning from the Great Patriotic War.

The big clue is in the following line:

And did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?
located somewhere in the middle of the song. This is exactly what happened to a huge number of Soviet soldiers – captured by the Germans but then rescued by the advancing red army, they were suspected by red army political agents to have been corrupted into the ways of the West, and thus to be ideologically suspect, so were banished to the Gulag for a period of 5 or 10 years after the war.
The first line of the song also evokes a strong image of prison camp tales, the train line passing through the vast and unforgiving wilderness of Russia to its cruel destination:
Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?
and follows with a sneaky reference to the ever-present stool-pigeons of the society Solzhenitsyn describes when it follows up this “can you tell” with “A smile from a veil?” Large sections of the song also speak to the disillusionment that Solzhenitsyn describes in Cancer Ward and The First Circle:
And did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have you found? The same old fears.
I think the latter part of this song is also about the futility of revolution, and the way that it always seems to shake the same filthy power mongers to the top. It’s an anthem to cynicism, really, which is pretty much what Solzhenitsyn managed to put together over the best part of his literary career. There’s an enormous amount of cynicism in Pink Floyd’s work – the song Mother (delivered at its best, in my opinion, by Sinead O’Connor) drips with cynical venom, for example, and The Wall Part 3 may seem like overly rebellious stupidity to anyone under the age of 30, but to anyone who experienced British schools in the 70s it is 100% spot on in its nastiness. They certainly give it a try, but it’s a rare Englishman who can match the cynicism of your average Russian, and Pink Floyd during the era of Roger Waters were exemplars of those few who were more than up to the task. So it doesn’t surprise me at all that they would have been able to take on the deep, dark and pure cynicism of early Solzhenitsyn. Without David Gilmour I don’t know how they would have avoided sublimating into pure darkness – how Solzhenitsyn does it I can’t even begin to guess.
So, I think Pink Floyd rote a song in homage to Solzhenitsyn’s experiences and never bothered to tell their fans what it was about. If Iron Maiden can make their most famous effort from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, then why not? Good literature has always been the foundation stone of good rock, and Pink Floyd are no exception. So next time you’re listening to this fine song, spare a thought for all those people who only took the steel rail one way …

Not someone you want to go bowling with...

Twenty-five years ago today the Grim Reaper appeared on Australian television to warn us about the dangers of HIV. You can see the ad through this article about the anniversary. I was 14 at the time, and it was truly terrifying. I think it did its job, and scared Australians into sexual responsibility, though now that we have treatments and testing and the like, people may be beginning to become complacent again. Although it now seems a bit hammy, I think it also compares favourably with British health and safety adverts – it’s not as tacky, and makes its point much more succinctly and believably. I particularly like the nod to the holocaust when the narrator says it could kill more people than world war 2 – a nice touch, very understated but very effective.

There was some controversy at the time, because some people interpreted it as likening gay men to the Grim Reaper (at that time it was largely a disease of gay men), but unlike in the USA there was a much better relationship between government, health workers and gay activists, and the controversy didn’t damage the ad’s effectiveness. Of course now people think that the kinds of things being said in this advert were hyperbolic or alarmist, because Australia has largely escaped the problem of HIV – another complaint made at the time was that this ad was overdoing it, and would contribute to that general suspicion people have that government health messages are just intended to scare us. But take one look at the situation in Africa and it’s clear that Australia dodged a very, very scary epidemic, and with our large drug-using population it was possible that HIV could have crossed to the heterosexual population by the early 1990s. It didn’t, and we can thank Australia’s early and very impressive response for our very lucky escape. Part of that response was this cute guy with his scythe and his slightly tatty cape, and we Australians should all be thankful for whatever small part he played in keeping us safe. So, thanks and … happy birthday Grim Reaper! If you get laid at your party, remember that prevention is the only cure we’ve got!

image

Spring has come, and the big event of the early spring is the cherry blossom viewing festival, hanami. These are the arrangements at 9am this morning in Inokashira park, Tokyo. All the blue mats are a spot someone has reserved for their viewing party, and the people sitting on the mats are likely junior members of a company or club, who have been sent to guard a spot (basho tori) until evening. Partying under the flowers is a serious business, involving a lot of alcohol, possibly a grill or bbq, and a wide range of foods and snacks. If you look carefully you can see that the people on the mats have left their shoes at the edge: this is an important consideration in these parties. All the major parks in Tokyo will have arrangements like those pictured above, and many also lay out rubbish bins and entertainment (Inokashira park has signs up asking us to take our rubbish home, so is going for a “zero rubbish” approach to partying). The flowers we’ll be looking at are like this:

image

Typically one has several hanami: one with family, one with friends, one with any circle or club of which one is a member, and one with work. I am probably going to do four: two with my partner on Saturday (one in the park shown here); one with my university, on Monday, at which we will also welcome the new students; and one on Friday next week with my partner, when we head North to Ikaho to enjoy their famous cherry blossom scenes. If I had a role-playing group of longer standing, I would also be doing a hanami party with them, but we don’t seem to be planning any.

Early April is a really nice time in Japan, because everything renews: spring has come, the cherry blossoms are out, new businesses open and all the “freshmen” enter companies and universities. It has a strong feeling of renewal and energy that’s very nice. The strong party atmosphere of the hanami season really serves to reinforce the feeling of new beginnings, and it’s a famous part of Japanese culture, reflecting a strong (and some say unique) Japanese sense of the impernanence of all things. Japanese life is characterized by seasonal festivals, and the main stages of a Japanese year are not marked by fixed historical or religious dates (like Christmas or Anzac Day) but by fluid, seasonal events: the cherry blossoms, the summer fireworks, the Autumn leaves, and finally the winter equinox. It’s at these times that one is reminded both of the strong role ritual continues to play in everyday Japanese life, and the continuing connection that Japanese culture has to paganism.

It’s also at times like this that one gets outrageously drunk with random strangers, and eats too much. Wish me luck toasting the impernanence of my sobriety …

Gamers from Britain of a certain age may recall the educational videos released by the government about various saftety topics – stranger danger, farm safety, getting crushed by trains, what happens if you slip on a rug, etc. I remember being terrified by the farm safety video when I was at school, and having to write some stupid essay about making too much noise in the changing room and having a kid fall over and hit his head on a radiator and die[1]. Well, the Guardian has an article about these videos and how terrifying they were, including links to the worst of them. They are genuinely creepy and nasty. The article mentions that they seem to have quite a resemblance to the style of horror at the time, and I do wonder which inspired which.

If you look them up on youtube you’ll find some genuinely disturbing entries in the genre, including the horrific Beware the Rapist (they told it like it was in ’70s America – who could ever trust a door to door christmas card salesman after watching that?) and the hilarious one about the pram. One can also look up the Protect and Survive nuclear war survival videos, which make Duck and Cover sound like a fairground game. I would have thought that as soon as those kinds of videos are being aired, in all seriousness, by your own government, it’s time to say “fuck this for a game of soldiers!” and overthrow the entire system – it’s beyond madness that people were seriously contemplating this kind of situation. Younger generations are, I think, genuinely lucky that the threat of nuclear war has faded, if for no other reason than that they don’t have to put up with these horrendous videos.

Some of the comments under the article contain links to and/or descriptions of other videos, and some of them also contain some pretty funny comments on how society has changed. This one, sadly unlinked, about safety videos in India:

A dad is driving to work, imagining all the horrific things his toddler might be dying of back home because of his lack of safety precautions there. He successively imagines, in graphic detail, it dying by putting its finger in an electric socket, being boiled alive by a pot of boiling water he forgot to take off the stove, slashing its throat on the razor he forgot to put away, falling off the fourth-floor veranda that he forgot to screen in, and so on. In the end he decides to rush home to make sure his kid is safe. When he sees it is unharmed, he is so happy, he picks it up, joyfully throws it in the air, where it promptly gets mangled in the ceiling fan

Haha! Disasters are funny! But funnier still, this style of video seems to have spanned the globe. Were the Soviets doing it too? Japan? Of course we don’t see these videos at all anymore (at least not that I can tell), maybe partly because Health and Safety education has moved beyond the belief that accidents are the fault of individual choices, to ways of designing them away – many of the “accidents” in these videos that the audience are warned about could be avoided by, for example, redesigning electrical plugs or putting proper fences around slurry pits. But maybe people realized that it’s better to die young in a slurry pit than to spend your youth watching horrible B-grade horror stories about slurry pits. Or maybe because, as another commenter observes, society was harder back then:

It was great in those days, so many ways to die, no chance of getting fat as even if your father was still around he was on a three day week and so spent all the money in the pub, drink driving wasn’t even recognised as a crime, and child abuse was a national sport. All men died three weeks after they claimed their pension, probably because of the 100 fags they had smoked every day since they were 8 years old.

Or maybe it’s because the government realized that this kind of movie is counter-productive if it’s going to lead to adults who write comments like this:

This is what is wrong with society and why kids have no respect, today they get CBBC and Mr Tumble, but in the good old days you were fully informed from an early age that you were almost certainly going to be dead tomorrow unless we listened to a paternalistic State. Now we have a State that is actively encouraging us to fill our baths with petrol.

Anyway, it’s interesting to watch these videos and see how things were in the 1970s – grindingly poor and very dangerous, and if you didn’t die in a slurry pit you’d die of shame at the clothes you were wearing. Thank the gods of commerce for progress, and ask yourself what terrors could lie in even the best made horror movie, when every time you went to school you would be exposed to videos like this. Child abuse or public safety campaign? You be the judge!

 

fn1: This was in detention, because we were all given detention for being noisy. The reason we were being noisy is because some odious little kid was running around the physical education changing rooms waving his newly-erect willy about for all to admire, but when the teacher came in of course we all shut up and he put it away. So when I wrote my essay about a kid slipping over and falling because he didn’t hear someone yelling a warning to him about the puddle of water, I guess I was working out my post-erectile trauma.

Today is the day that Japanese men have to repay the largesse they were shown by the fairer sex on Valentine’s Day; and so it’s the day that I have to repay my own massive chocolate haul. The White Day “tradition” in Japan (if you can call a wicked scheme hatched by Big Chocolate a “tradition”) is for men to give chocolates to women in repayment for the chocolates they are given on Valentine’s Day. Typically the man’s responsibilities are lesser: he doesn’t have to give chocolate to women who didn’t give to him, whereas women are expected to shower all the men in their lives (friends, lovers, family and colleagues) with chocolate. I find this imbalance in gift-giving very pleasing. Nonetheless, I’m nothing if not a stickler for tradition, so today I delivered some Godiva chocolates (specially packaged for White Day!) to the Delightful Miss E, and last night I gave a small box of truffles to a friend. I also gave chocolates to the office staff at my work today: they didn’t give me anything but nothing makes life easier than small kindnesses to one’s office staff. Who me, mercenary? I’m not giving chocolates to the one student who observed the Valentine’s Day tradition, because she baked a chocolate cake (a very delicious one!) for the entire Department, which presumably means that she’s now received a year’s supply of chocolate in return, and I refuse to repay that kind of callous profiteering.

At every significant railway station in Tokyo there is at least one stall selling White Day goods, and today when I emerged from the barriers in Kichijoji I saw a long line of harried Salarymen waiting to buy White Day chocolates at the local stalls (there were two). Hell hath no fury like a woman spurned on White Day, and so they lined up … harmony in the home, harmony in the nation and all that… but I did notice a sizable number of women in the queue too. This would probably be because lots of women have taken to buying chocolate for their female friends on Valentine’s Day, which then naturally leaves them obliged to buy repayment chocolate (okaeshi) on White Day as well. Truly, women have it tough …

Though I noticed at Ochanomizu station that the florist had a sign up on Valentine’s Day, which depicted a man giving a woman a rose, and the slogan “Let’s try a new kind of Valentine’s Day.” I hope the flower of Japan’s manhood are wise enough not to let this kind of pernicious nonsense catch on hereabouts …

In Wednesday’s Guardian, Charlie Brooker continues his series of articles on his trip to Japan, and in the same tone: where he started his first article with a long paragraph that combines toilet humour and assertions about the kookiness of Japan, this article starts with a description of a computer game about bouncing turds, and finishes the introduction with

Unfathomable, futuristic madness: that’s what made me want to visit Japan.

So, in case you weren’t sure from the first article, Japan is strange and fascinated with toilets and poo.

Except, really, it’s Brooker who is fascinated with poo. He seems quite taken with the abject, if his first article was anything to go by. But once again, after he’s got the obligatory toilet humour and stereotyping of Japan’s “futuristic madness” out of the way, he carries on with a valid observation about this place:

it’s a place where being a geek (or otaku) is comfortably mainstream. Former Prime Minister Taro Aso is an enthusiastic manga-collecting otaku, the TV ad breaks heave with glossy commercials for collectible card games, and multi-storey games arcades are commonplace.

This is very true. Of course, he immediately follows this important observation with another example of drawing the wrong conclusion due to limited data:

the subway is eerily silent: thanks to a strong underground signal, everyone’s staring at their smartphones, texting, playing games, or reading. Only after a fortnight did it strike me: not once did I hear a single person actually speaking into their phone on the Tokyo subway. Everyone – and I mean everyone – seemed to be perpetually tapping and swiping in silence. Unnerving to many: to a geek like me, it felt strangely comforting.

This, Charlie, is not because everyone is madly playing some game or other. You might actually have noticed a lot of people reading these things called “books.” But the reason they’re not talking into their phones is because there are signs and announcements asking people not to. It is considered very poor manners in Japan to talk on your phone in restaurants, cafes, bars or trains. i.e. in public. And people in Japan follow these rules. If it’s “unnerving to many,” this is because that’s another one of those things about the west that don’t make sense once you haven’t lived there for a while. Those people you saw on the subway being quiet aren’t doing so because they are obssessed with a game; they’re doing so because they are refraining from offending others. That’s not “strangely comforting,” it’s perfectly ordinarily comforting.

The rest of the article consists of a fairly nice description of one of Japan’s bigger game arcades, from the perspective of someone who is familiar with what should be going on but can’t understand it because he is in a foreign land. Again, though, he pushes the unfathomable nature of the thing too far, and again reminds us that Japan is exotic and incomprehensible:

a roomful of sombre youths vying for individual supremacy using some form of networked arcade strategy game that uses collectible cards. Imagine witnessing a game of bridge being played in the Cabinet War Rooms in the year 2072 AD … whatever the theme, the nature of the action is absolutely impenetrable to the casual onlooker.

Charlie, here’s a real-life hint for you: to people outside the nerd world, this kind of stuff is absolutely impenetrable in their own language. Now that you don’t speak the language, you can be reminded of how people feel when they watch you at your normal hobby. Eye opening, isn’t it?

Other than this, the article struck me as a missed opportunity. There’s a photo of an “otaku girl” at the top of the article but she doesn’t look otaku to me, and (probably because he hasn’t had time to notice), Brooker hasn’t mentioned how different gender relations are amongst nerds in Japan compared to the West. To wit: in Japan, being a nerd is not only more acceptable, but it’s especially more acceptable for girls. There are adverts on the trains targeting Wii at old people, and the latest computer games (like Mario Land and Monster Hunter) at young women. There is an advert for a trading card game in which a member of a currently-popular boy band goes to a game shop and plays the card game with the lonely kid in the corner; there are adverts for a new trading card game where some of the cards are based on members of a famous boy band (Exile, I think). In Ikebukuro there is a whole series of shops devoted to targeting pornographic manga at women. This is a hobby world that is not just mainstream, but mainstream for both genders – and this is why Wii was invented in Japan, not the USA. It’s a shame that Brooker didn’t find a way to comment on this, and on how much easier that makes being a nerd in this country. He also didn’t find any opportunities to talk about the darker side of the nerd world in Japan: pachinko, or AKB48. Instead, he just took a last chance to remind us that Japan is crazy and incomprehensible. Just in case we didn’t know that.

I wonder what his next article will tell us? Feel free to put your predictions in the comments …