IMJ Assignment – The Tao of Fighting: War in Peace

Hi everyone! If you have ever wondered about what is the difference between traditional and contemporary wushu, watch this video!

 

http://vimeo.com/32079919

IMJ Assignment – ‘The Technique of the Military’

 

My group (consisting of Aaron,  Jennifer and Jeannie) has decided to focus on practitioners of Chinese martial arts, or the wushu community in Singapore, a project which we have entitled ‘The Technique of the Military’. The project will consist of two main components. The first component will be a general overview of the history, tradition and characteristics of wushu. The second component will be a series of four side-stories focusing on one particular wushu group.

After much discussion, the angle I am focusing on would be comparing and contrasting the stylistic and methodological differences between traditional and contemporary forms of wushu. Given wushu‘s long history as a fighting style, dating back to the historical text, the Spring and Autumn Annals (dated 5th century BCE), wushu has long been the fighting style of countless generations of soldiers in ancient Chinese history. Like all forms of hand-to-hand combat taught to soldiers around the word today, martial discipline and a prioritization on the skills needed to quickly and effectively neutralize an opponent are of paramount importance. While wushu is no exception to that rule, there has been growing criticism that contemporary forms of wushu seem to have moved away from the traditional focus on combat functionality. Instead, it has been argued that contemporary wushu appears to focus more on the aesthetics of the martial art. Incorporating what detractors claim to be superfluous and unecessary moves to each style, in order to enhance the supposed beauty of the martial art.

While there are countless tales (and Hong Kong movies/drama series) which feature martial artists in ancient China using their skills as part of a traveling roadshow in order to make a living selling ‘medicinal’ products or simply astounding audiences by being able to withstand blows from plank-wielding assistants; there is an underlying tension between the necessity and role of wushu in times of peace, and its original purpose as a fighting style for self-defence.

This side-story, which I have tentatively called ‘War in Peace’, aims to explore that same tension through the use of video and photography, coupled with a simplified table that compares and contrasts the different forms. To accomplish these ends, I will be interviewing and recording the styles of at least one representative instructor from the traditional and contemporary schools.

Ideally, my side-story would tie-in with Aaron’s photographic essay feature on a shifu (or a martial arts teacher), by concretely presenting and showcasing the differences between the traditional and contemporary forms. With any luck, this side-story would be able to help generate and sustain debate over the fundamental issue of whether a particular cultural form should modernise to suit the times, or maintain its traditional features. By presenting information in a clear and concise manner, I hope to be able to educate my audience about wushu, and allow them to create a more informed opinion about such debates.

Hypertextuality, Photography (and Trauma), The Internet & Lots of Big Words

This week, I have been tasked to write a response on “What is the Place of Web Documentary in Journalism?”. First of all, my apologies to my teacher. Because this post will be a little (ok, quite) rambling and I may end up branching off to parallel themes or ideas, as opposed to solely seeking to answer the question directly.

To begin, the question itself begs an epistemological dissection. To read the question implies that there a whole spectrum of possible answers. “What is the place” implies that the genre of the web documentary somehow requires an argument defending its position within the field of journalism. A justification of purpose, of meaning, so to speak. I hear the question spoken in my mind by a dark-suited corporate manager intently looking at a prospective employee in the same tones as the eternal question: “Why should I hire you?” (An existentialist question if there ever was one. Yeesh.)

So, why should there be a space for the web documentary, or webdoc? First of all, let’s look at what constitutes a web documentary… First, there is a medium by which information is transmitted, i.e. the Internet; Second, a close inter-relationship between text, photos, videos, sound, and increasingly, with the reader. Third, it seeks to educate, inform, and enlighten its audience. In all these three points, the webdoc parallels that of journalism’s characteristics. If anything, I would argue that the webdoc is an evolution in what we would traditionally call journalism.

Take for example, the bastion of traditional journalism – the newspaper. By itself, the newspaper can be seen as a hypertext, very much like the webdoc. Reading the front page leads you to another page within the main section, a photo with a short by-line leads to another article on another page. Articles link back to previous articles on previous days (for example, the continuing coverage of a news-worthy event), and even the commentary section allows the reader to contribute feedback and respond to articles in the paper! If one were to view it in that light,  wouldn’t the webdoc be considered another evolution in journalism?

Given the near-possibilities for story-telling in the webdoc, I applaud Katerina Cizek’s international web documentary project, ‘Out My Window’ (http://interactive.nfb.ca/#/outmywindow), and the overall vision of her project, ‘Highrise’. Where a traditional journalistic project would seek out an issue to focus on, such as France 24’s award-winning documentary on rape in the Congo (http://www.france24.com/static/infographies/webdocumentary-congo-peace-rape-goma-drc-north-kivu-un-goma/index.html), or any of the documentaries featured in this article in the European Journalism Observatory on web docs (http://en.ejo.ch/?p=2872#more-2872), Cizek instead looks at an over-arching idea, or theme – i.e. people living in high-rises, and from there, stories begin to emerge almost organically from each city. From inner-city gangsterism in Chicago, to the issue of Tibetan Exiles in Canada, and even the homeless/squatters in Brazil.

But what is remarkable isn’t the fact that such stories arise from interviews. But rather, the fact that these stories have a very real impact on each family that was interviewed is what makes it stand out. If traditional journalism tended to focus on the macro with little to no focus on the micro, Cizek’s stories are built up from the micro, on the individual level. In so doing, Cizek forces us to question WHY these individuals are affected by such issues. And if so, shouldn’t we do something about it?

After all, it’s easier to ignore an issue if there isn’t a human face attached to it. (Case in point, http://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/2009/05/06/napalm-attack/ was among the photos that highlighted the atrocities of the Vietnam War)

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Moving away from the question posed, a couple of statements made my Cizek reminded me of my readings in Photographic Theory…

(A) Seam(less)

In her director’s statement, she says, “We decided that the photographs of people’s spaces should not be seamless 360 degree views… We would create collages, overlappings, doublings. Many seams. Leaving room for interpretation, for the unspoken, the unsaid, the private, the personal.”

An example of this photographic ‘seam’ may be seen in those videos which feature a balcony. A black space divides the photos of the outside, and the photos of the inside. What is this black space if not a demarcation between the interior and the exterior? Does this demarcation separate the concerns of those who inhabit the interior, from the concerns of those who live beyond the interior? Think carefully about the Tibetian exile living in Toronto. When we click on the 1000 towers in the distance, we are immediately transported out to talk to a Caribbean musician who talks about his drum playing. While the two are tied together by their music, beyond that, what else? If one of the aims of the webdoc is to examine the possibilities of social unity/interaction within the confines of the apartment block, what does it say if it separates the block from the other places around it? How about the Sao Paulo clip? Being one of the fastest growing cities in Brazil, is the plight of the squatters becoming disconnected from the general concerns of San Paulo inhabitants? This reading problematizes the whole work, and deserves to be considered in greater detail…

Again, another reading of the seams is that the breaks highlight the possibility of trauma. In his book, Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma, Ulrich Baer looks at images that reveal “experiences that have not been, and possibly cannot be, assimilated into such a continuous narrative”. Again the question arises: Why the doubling? The overlapping and breaks between images whilst making this 360 degree view of people’s homes? – Another answer? Because of trauma.

Take the Chicago webdoc. One of the first images you see when the page has loaded is the two photographs sitting on the living room table stand. Moving your cursor over it, the spectral words “friends are gone” rise over the photographs, and it is from the accompanying video that we realize that the interviewee’s brother died in a gang-related shooting when she was young. The surrounding images of the photographs are a doubling of each other. Overlaid upon each other. Obscuring that which remains unforgotten, yet deeply personal.

So while I applaud Cizek’s attempts to give her subjects privacy, and the space to express their emotional breaks and trauma within the photographic representation of the physical space in their homes; on the political level, I cannot help but to be disappointed by her iconographic distinctions between the home and the outside, because of the implied separation between the private and the public (as elaborated earlier).

 

Next time you visit a site, don’t just admire the pretty pictures. Ask yourself WHY they’re shot the way they are.

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On a slightly light-hearted note, I’m impressed by the use of 360 degree cameras in shooting the music videos. Breaking away from the traditional 2-D spaces that dominated traditional uses of cinematography and photography in webdocs, this new technology is quite remarkable for presenting the illusion of ACTUALLY being there, being sung to by such talented musicians.

However, one cannot help but to be a little unnerved by the sight of people dancing around the camera (i.e. you). I strangely feel like I’m a sacrificial lamb about to be roasted by a group of cheering villagers dancing around me and celebrating the coming feast. But that’s just me. =)

On Long Distance Relationships

“I find myself increasingly thinking about what she would say, or what she would do, in any given situation in my life. It is as though her absence highlights the possibilities of her presence. In the empty space where her form would inhabit, the probabilities of her actions exist. By not being here, I’m left wondering what would happen if she was.
If distance doesn’t make the heart grow fonder, it certainly makes the mind more thoughtful (and pleasantly distracted).”

 

The above paragraph was taken from my Facebook status update a few days ago. These past few days, I have been increasingly thoughtful about my own experiences with long distance relationships.

I met my Hungarian girlfriend while undertaking a one-year exchange to Japan last year (I was also there when the Tohoku Earthquake took place. But that is a different story. Which I shall share in a different post.) Since then, we have returned to our respective countries to finish our degrees (My BA, and her Masters).

A constant question I have been asking myself has its roots back in my Literature classes while talking about the concept of desire: “Do we desire a person? Or do we desire the desiring of that person?”

In other words, do I miss my girlfriend because I miss her? Or do I miss her because I love the bittersweet feeling of missing her?

 

I’m still thinking about that question. But I certainly hope that the answer is not the latter. And I hope she never reads this, if not she might get the wrong idea. (Ooops…)

But I am certain of one thing, though… Every day I’m away from her, is another day that I spend thinking about her actually being here.

Theoretical Chaotic Mathematics or: How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, the title is a pop-culture tribute to the Cold War classic, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” directed by Stanley Kubrick (Google it if you’ve never heard about it!)

In one of the scenes, the President is discussing with Dr. Strangelove, his expert on nuclear war, on the Soviet’s construction of a Doomsday Machine, which will destroy all life on Earth in the event that the Soviet Union comes under nuclear attack. Bewildered by this revelation, the President tries to understand why anyone would build such a machine:

President Merkin Muffley: How is it possible for this thing to be triggered automatically and at the same time impossible to untrigger?

Dr. Strangelove: Mr. President, it is not only possible, it is essential. That is the whole idea of this machine, you know. Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy… the FEAR to attack. And so, because of the automated and irrevocable decision-making process which rules out human meddling, the Doomsday machine is terrifying and simple to understand… and completely credible and convincing.

Watching Kevin Slavin’s TED presentation about how algorithms shape our world, I grew increasingly alarmed as I listened. I would be the first to admit that my imagination tends to take a fantastical turn, and images of ‘The Matrix’ and ‘Terminator’ gripped me as I imagined a world with algorithms going crazy and eventually bringing us back to the Stone Age or something…

But haven’t we gone down this path of fantasy with the Y2K bug? Before the dawn of the year 2000, analysts were warning that faulty algorithms would make computers think we’ve gone back to the year zero, and instantly crash. Now we have the Flash Crash of 2:45?

Post-apocalyptic fears aside, is journalism better served by algorithms that aggregate data, or by when humans who assimilate data and postulate? Personally, (and at the risk of sounding like a Luddite) I personally feel that while algorithms can help the journalist to understand the vast ocean of data surrounding us, and make order out of chaos; it is still important that humans retain the ability to assimilate data and postulate.

For all the vaunted advances in perfecting algorithms and enhancing our ability to comprehend information, algorithms are still nothing more than mathematical equations designed to focus on a series of repeated patterns and to take action(s) based on these patterns.

Let’s consider a hypothetical example… A journalist enlists the aid of an algorithm to track the stock market movements for a given day, and sets the condition that the journalist will be alerted if the stock market moves erratically. Now, in the sudden outbreak of war, or the announcement of a financial crisis, the algorithm will be activated, and the reporter is alerted. However, any journalist worth their salt would have already looked at the world news and postulated potential outcomes of global events, and would hence already been on the alert even before the algorithm sets off an alarm.

But what happens if the algorithm sets off an alarm in response to other algorithms going haywire? While I am no computer scientist, I wonder if the Crash of 2:45 was caused the statistically unlikely problem of all these algorithms being set off at the same time? A kind of ‘Perfect Storm’, if you will… Where all these various conditions are simultaneously met at the same time, and thus affecting all algorithms in a kind of domino effect. And all we can do, is to quickly press the big red ‘STOP’ button in front of us. But what if it’s too late?

Yes, algorithms can help to ease the task of the journalist. Allowing the journalist to focus on more important issues, like finding the angle for writing the story, while the algorithm trawls the vast seas of data for the data that we need. But at the end of the day, we need to sift through the data collected and postulate theories based on the data collected. No program, no matter how advanced can possibly mimic our ability to extrapolate patterns and draw conclusions based on these extrapolations.

Which brings us back to Dr. Strangelove… if we surrender ourselves to the “mere automated and irrevocable decision-making process which rules out human meddling”, are we then not doomed? Man isn’t its own worse enemy – our creations are too.

Why I Love Pie (charts)

This week will have a number of posts. Two of which are related to my NTU module, and an extra one because I feel like I don’t give this blog enough love. =(

This post will be answering a question posed to me, where I’m supposed to consider how Edward Rolf Tufte’s “Ten Commandments” (as I like to call it. No offence meant to anyone!) is applied to the US Government’s attempt to provide a transparent accounting of the money spent as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (passed in 2009). This culminated in the creation of the Recovery.gov website  (http://www.recovery.gov/Pages/default.aspx).

The example I would like to look at would be how the Congressional Budget Office created a data visualisation to describe the breakdown of funds allocated to three main areas: (1) Tax Benefits; (2) Contracts, Grants and Loans; (3) Entitlements. The page I will be looking at, may be found here: http://www.recovery.gov/Transparency/fundingoverview/Pages/fundingbreakdown.aspx

Before I continue my discussion, I must admit that I’m a little lazy (ok, not a little. A lot.), and I’ll be discussing the data visualisation mainly through words. So please leave the link open, and refer to it occasionally as you read this. (Not the most effective means of communication, I know. But I have essays to write, and taking the time to ‘print screen’ and crop out the relevant graph just seems like too much work!)

Now, the reason why I chose to look at the break-down of funding allocation is because that is probably the most overlooked aspect of the site, and possibly holds the most amount of information and data. Since funds are allocated to those three main areas that I mentioned earlier, we have to remember that there are sub-sections, and sub-sub-sections to those sub-sections. (Confused yet? Well, thank Tufte for what I’m about to say next!)

So with this hydra-like, vertiable Gordian’s Knot  of information to unravel, what can one do? Well, what this particular page did is to provide one with a general over-view of the data, while spreading the remaining data onto a second page! While it requires a little bit more work to go into another page to see a further breakdown of, say, what each individual Education department got out of the USD$86.7 billion given, the initial page provides a comprehensive overview of which sub-sections of Tax Benefits; Contracts, Grants and Loans; and Entitlements got.

By assigning a particular colour to each of the three divisions – Green for tax benefits; dark orange for contracts, grants and loans; and purple for entitlements – and then utilising the same colour scheme to create bar graphs illustrating different sub-sections. Deliberately kept simple, the bar graphs simply utilise an X-axis labeled ‘Total Tax Benefits’ etc, and a Y-axis marking how many billions of dollars.

Below each bar graph, the name of each sub-section is indicated next to a bar corresponding to the approximate length of the sub-section’s representation on the bar graph itself, coupled with a brief description beneath the sub-section’s title. For example, under Tax Benefits, the largest bar belongs to “Individual Tax Credits”, and a representative bar is placed to the left of the title “Individual Tax Credits”. Beneath it, a brief description of how these “Individual Tax Credits” will help are provided, e.g. First-Time Homebuyers. Transportation Subsidy. Education benefits. Earned Income Tax Credits. In this manner, the list goes from which sub-section gets the largest share of the budget given to that particular section, to the smallest sub-section.

This hierarchial manner in presenting information is important in allowing the website vistor to understand the information at a glance. For vistors who wish to learn more about which sub-sub-sections/departments got how much, they may click on a hyperlink provided within the title itself. For example, if I were interested in finding out if a ‘Child Tax Credit’ would be given more funds than a ‘First Time Homebuyer Credit’, I would click on the hyperlink provided within “Individual Tax Credits”, and I would be redirected to another page, which presents the information broken down within a table. Although the information is no longer listed in graphical format, it is still clear and intuitive enough that one can easily tell that ‘Child Tax Credit’ was given USD$7.7 billion more funds than  ‘First Time Homebuyer Credit’. From there, one may understand that the U.S. Government places families with children as a bigger priority than first time homebuyers.

To reiterate, this ‘drill down’ format displaying information is especially useful in understanding how such a massive recovery package can influence you at almost every level. Simultaneously, in order to prevent vistors from becoming confused and ‘turned-off’ by the sheer amount of unfiltered data being given to them, a simple, uncluttered bar chart is given – allowing us to understand all this information at a glance.

Which obliquely brings me to my post title… This is the reason why I like pie (charts). And yes, I know that that website didn’t use pie charts, but come on, let me make a bad joke, all right? Yeesh. =P

Off The Eaten Path

This week, as part of an ongoing assignment for school, I have made a video that touches on a topic dear to one and all…

Food.

Specifically, this video will showcase a number of Japanese snacks that I have had the (great) pleasure of eating, while pondering the existence of auspiciously packaged snacks catering to the niche market that I call the ‘Desperate-Student-Suffering-From-Pre-Exam-Jitters’.

After watching the video (and enjoying the pretty pictures), I’d like to hear what other kinds of foods do you consider to be lucky or taboo when it comes to pre-exam eating.

 

 

Hope to hear your answers soon!

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