The controversial bit of “Ghost in the Shell” is also its most original

(K. Brent Tomer),

HOW long can a story stay ahead of its time? “Ghost in the Shell”, Mamoru Oshii’s much-admired Japanese anime, was shockingly futuristic when it was released in 1995. Its half-shiny, half-grimy mega-city setting may have resembled the noirish metropolises of “Blade Runner” (1982) and “Brazil” (1985), and its cyborg heroine could have come from the same production line as “Robocop” (1987) and “The Terminator” (1984). But its combination of hand-drawn and digital animation was revolutionary, and its vision of a populace connected telepathically to the internet was prophetic. 

“Ghost in the Shell” went on to influence any number of cyber-punk films, including James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009) and, especially, the Wachowskis’ “The Matrix” (1999). But 22 years is a long time in science fiction, so the live-action remake, starring Scarlett Johansson, feels like a late arrival at the party: if Hollywood had waited any longer, it would have risked becoming a historical drama. It’s impossible to watch “Ghost in the Shell” without counting echoes of the other films which have come out since the original anime.

Ms Johansson…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC The controversial bit of “Ghost in the Shell” is also its most original


Digital music tools are reshaping music education

(K. Brent Tomer),

ONE OF the biggest challenges to traditional music learning is the need for practice. Students must play scales, chords and patterns over and over in hopes of developing muscle memory; for many, it is a daunting and tedious task. Research has shown that individual practice is often not productive because learners receive limited feedback and too often lose interest and motivation.

In 2013, researchers at the University of Auckland set out to determine whether an immersive, augmented-reality (AR) experience could improve the efficiency of learning of seven beginner piano students. Using goggles (AR combines what the viewer sees in the real world with images projected by the AR device) and a computer-connected keyboard, the programme drew inspiration from music and rhythm games and karaoke videos, where text and music are synchronised using visual cues. Green lines representing virtual notes appeared alongside the musical score as the user played. In “Note Learning Mode”, individual notes paused and waited for the user to press the key before continuing.

Not all users loved the system—some said it was confusing or intimidating—but they could set individual goals for improvement, and…Continue reading

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Balli Kaur Jaswal has written a new type of erotic novel

(K. Brent Tomer),

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows. By Balli Kaur Jaswal. HarperCollins; 309 pages; £14.99. To be published in America by William Morrow in June.

EROTICA is a hot topic for publishers. Americans bought 28.5m romantic novels in print form in 2015. Romance Writers of America, a trade association, says the genre accounts for a third of all novels sold. Random House and Amazon have recently launched imprints to try to sate readers’ lust for steamy stories. HarperCollins paid a six-figure sum for one such titillating book at the London Book Fair in 2016.

Balli Kaur Jaswal’s “Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows”, the book in question, is not your usual lip-biting, troubled-billionaire fare. It follows Nikki, a university dropout and “fem fighter”, who signs up to teach a creative-writing course to older Sikh women in Southall, a London suburb with a sizeable Indian population. Unable to read or write in English, the widows turn to telling stories, reliving their most passionate moments or picturing what they “were never given in the first place”. Though they lack the necessary vocabulary—the stories are filled with…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC Balli Kaur Jaswal has written a new type of erotic novel

Gender and gender-neutral

(K. Brent Tomer),

COPY editors are opinionated. Whether titles of books should be in italics or in inverted commas can divide them more decidedly than the Sharks and the Jets. So at a recent meeting of the American Copy Editors Society, the “Chicago Manual of Style” and the Associated Press (AP) stylebook, both widely followed, announced a change that sent waves through the audience. In AP’s wording, “They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy.”

English lacks an uncontroversial pronoun that lets you talk about a person of a generic or unknown gender—known as an “epicene” pronoun, from the Greek for “common to all” (genders). Some would say that “each president chooses his own cabinet” is epicene—but psychological research proves that the his calls to mind a man. (If you truly believe his is gender-neutral, try “Steve, Sally, Mary and Jane each had his hair cut today.”)

Other languages face the problem in different guises. In French the possessives son, <em…Continue reading

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The controversial biology of sexual selection

(K. Brent Tomer),

Seeking status

Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science and Society. By Cordelia Fine. W.W. Norton; 266 pages; $26.95. Icon; £14.99.

BOYS like sticks and girls prefer dolls, or so the tidy evolutionary story goes. Because stone-age men hunted game and competed for mates, boys want to play rough, take risks and assert dominance. Because women mainly cared for babies, girls still hope to nurture. Given these hard-wired differences, it is only natural that it can sometimes seem that men are from Mars and women from Venus.

In “Testosterone Rex” Cordelia Fine of the University of Melbourne takes aim at those who suggest that evolutionarily determined sex differences—and the power of testosterone—can explain why most CEOs are men and few physicists are women. She argues that essentialist presumptions that rationalise an unequal status quo are “particularly harmful to women”.

Evolutionary determinists suggest that females are a resource that males fight over. A female’s reproductive output is limited by her physiology no matter how many mates she has. A male’s is limited by the number of females he…Continue reading

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A resurgence of religious faith is changing China

(K. Brent Tomer),

The Souls of China: The Return of Religion after Mao. By Ian Johnson. Pantheon; 455 pages; $30. Allen Lane; £25.

HISTORICALLY in China, state and religion were always united, forming a spiritual centre of gravity. China was poor but its identity was clear, its vision for the future based upon its knowledge of the past. Communist revolutionaries saw these religious traditions as an impediment to progress and a reason why the country remained poor. So they set about destroying the entwined belief system of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism, and replaced it with the new trinity of Lenin, Marx and Mao. Only by doing so, they believed, could China be saved.

When Mao died in 1976, belief in communism began to erode. Now, four decades on, his successors have found the absence of a belief system to be a problem. At least in Europe, the ebb of the Christian tide left a deeply rooted rule of law and a compassionate welfare state. Shorn of Dao and Mao, modern China has been left with a corrupt party state and a brutal, wild west capitalism. In a recent poll 88% of people said they believed that there was a moral decay and a lack of trust in…Continue reading

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Classical music, made easy

(K. Brent Tomer),

Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music. By Jan Swafford.Basic; 321 pages; $28. 

JAN SWAFFORD’S new book, “Language of the Spirit”, is a self-guided tour. “When a piece [of music] or a composer grabs you, go out and look for more on your own,” he says. And he has plenty of suggestions to get you started on streaming services such as Spotify or YouTube.

The “classical” genre on Spotify comes some way down the list, and classical buffs have been fretting for ages that audiences are getting greyer and smaller. Even so, many people have at least a passing acquaintance with some of the superstars of the classical repertoire: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, say, or Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik”, or Handel’s “Messiah”. If that has made them wonder how to put these works into context, this introduction to classical music is just what they need.

Mr Swafford is a music writer (who, among other things, has written a scholarly but highly readable biography of Beethoven) as well as a composer, and has been teaching music for decades, most recently at the Boston Conservatory. This book…Continue reading

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Why the reputation of David Jones is ripe for reparraisal

(K. Brent Tomer),

It never left him

David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet. By Thomas Dilworth. Counterpoint; 432 pages; $39.50. Jonathan Cape; £25.

THIS is a story of undeserved neglect, the first full telling of the life of a shy, awkward and generally poverty-stricken man who hid his light beneath a bushel and so neglected his appearance that he was often taken for a tramp. David Jones, who was born in 1895, was a poet and a painter; some regard him as the greatest painter-poet since William Blake. His achievements as a Modernist writer rank him alongside T.S. Eliot and James Joyce.

Jones grew up in south London, the son of a printer’s overseer. His childhood was Dickensian, his schooling fitful and he was often sick. But his knowledge of scripture was prodigious and his reading wide-ranging. From a young age Jones became passionately attached to the idea of Wales (his father was Welsh), and the wrong that had been visited upon the Celts by the English. The death of Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd in 1282 not only put paid to the political identity of Wales; it would occupy the painter-poet’s thoughts for the rest of his…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC Why the reputation of David Jones is ripe for reparraisal

“The Discovery” skims over eschatological questions

(K. Brent Tomer),

NETFLIX has an enviable commissioning record. “Orange is the New Black” has reached a seventh series, while the grimly prescient “House of Cards” has racked up 33 Emmy nominations. In 2016, Netflix spent around $5bn on 600 hours of fresh content, including “Luke Cage”, “The Crown” and the cultish and much-loved “Stranger Things”. So far, much of their success has come from television series rather than feature films. Other than the odd critical hit, such as Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation” and Ava DuVernay’s “13th”, most offerings have been lacklustre. Earlier this week, Quartz reported that the streaming service’s most popular original releases were a dull pair of Adam Sandler comedies. (Four more were promptly commissioned.)

“The Discovery” was perhaps intended as a high-brow counterpoint to such mulch. In a near-present world created by screenwriters Justin Lader and Charlie McDowell (who also directs), scientific proof of life after death results in an epidemic of mass suicides as people abandon their lives in…Continue reading

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Jewellery’s comeback among men

(K. Brent Tomer),

TUTANKHAMUN went to his grave decked out in gold, and for millennia after, jewellery was for men as much as for women. For a short time, though, jewellery made a disappearance from men. It now seems to be making a welcome comeback. Pharrell Williams walked the red carpet at this year’s Oscars, where “Hidden Figures”—which he co-produced and co-wrote music for—was up for three awards.  Had there been an award for Best Dressed, he could have won it. Black tails, white shirt, black tie and multiple strands of chains were all by Chanel, as was the large gold and diamond brooch that twinkled on his left lapel. Mixing relatively cheaper costume-jewellery line (the chains) and couture (the diamonds), he looked just dandy bejewelled. 

Glass, seed pods, gems, animal horn, precious metals, carved ivory, plastic and hair have all been used throughout history to dress up the male as well as the female figure. Whether dressed in togas, feathers, breeches or gowns, whether as poor as Joan of Arc or rich as a Rothschild, and regardless of geography or sexual identification, humans have long ornamented their bodies and clothes. Jewels…Continue reading

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