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Archive for December, 2008

Rough up

napsterbadgesmall1I had a great idea for a sitcom tonight, while walking around the gigantic new mall that’s opened just across the paddyfields from our dorm. I had been thinking about how Megavideo‘s closing down on its non-subscriber free use, and I was talking to a friend about the vast discrepancies between different films in release delay in Asia. After all, if Dark Knight came out here in Japan three months after the American release, everyone who would have watched it would have already pirated it. Hence, in Japan it’s been out for months is available for rent, while Wall.E is only just out now, presumably because there aren’t many families who queue up rips they’ve downloaded to show at their kids’ birthday parties.

Or do they?

Thus was borne The Pirate Family. A hypermodern take on classic sitcom formulae, like the traditional scene of the patefamilias sweating and cursing over the snarl of busted, 10-year old Christmas lights, his kids whining about why they don’t just buy a new string every year.

Except here Dad, belly protruding and ponytail a-quiver, is cursing over his antiquated KaZzaa and DivX player trying to get the family’s evening viewing to play, while his consumerist ragamuffin kids whine why they don’t just get it from iTunes. “Will you shut up! It’s the principle of the thing! You kids just want to pay for everything!”

“The family that rips together, stays together” says mother from the sofa, swiftly minimising quotationgarden.com as she does so.

“But I don’t want to watch An Inconvenient Truth again!” cries little Arwen. “Shh!” hisses her brother Data. “Better that than The Times of  a Sign*, or late M*A*S*H or Torchwood.”

“I wanna watch Mythbusters!”

“You take that back!”

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Maybe I got a little carried away.

The new mall is set to change our lives, frankly. It’s certainly going to change how we look back on this year in seven months’ time, and the sorts of things we say in the advice package we write to our successor scholars. “You lucky devils” will likely be the gist, but still. I honestly can’t say whether life will be better with one of the biggest malls in Kyushu five minutes’ walk away, but I suspect it will be a lot more expensive. It will be easier for us and the kids who come after us to, say, eat Italian or conveyor-belt sushi. But really, who cares? I have a fairly unpromising diet of ramen when left to my own devices, but there’s nothing stopping you from buying vegetables and eating well here.

But what last week was the sticks of a small city in Japan has become the sinkland surrounding a commuter shopper’s paradise. I’d love to be able to say that the area will benefit from the presence of thousands of families out for Sunday worship at the mall, but it’s unlikely to do anything but clog up the rail stations, choke the waste disposal with garbage, and sprawl across the paddy fields without its food-court denizens ever venturing out for inferior local coffee.

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I was directly responsibly for confirming the grimiest prejudices of gaijin in a whole group of Japanese guys just trying to finish work. Sat in the food court we had been speculating about what would be done with all the unsold donuts from the Mister Donut, when we turned around and noticed that dozens on dozens of donuts, pastries, flans and the like were being wedged, pile on crumpling, uniform brown pile, into a bin. Stomach churning and outraged, I went over and asked in broken Japanese whether, if they didn’t need the donuts, they could give them to me. No, store rules, I was told by the supervisor, and the two young men went on folding pastries into the bin.

I’d like to point out that I don’t feel stupid for what I did, despite my horrible Japanese and the looks of disgust I was given. They are stupid for throwing away what could probably heat the whole mall for an hour on burnt sugar alone.

I’m going for my Christmas shopping there tomorrow, while the opening sale is still on. It will be a fascinating, delirious experience.

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professionally short attention span

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PS Christiane Amanour on why the internet is a liability to journalism. I have to believe she is not correct, and have expended thousands of words arguing so without ever being able to fool myself all of the time. I still don’t think she’s got the longview down, but then who am I to criticise, when I mock and despise the excesses of our new mall while not recognising its liberating potential? Right?

Believe me, if you saw some of the outfits being marketed in this place, you might think differently. The cry of my generation will be “no, see, there is a difference between Barbie and Bratz“, those obscene warped husks of femininity. Just as my parents’ generation had to see a difference between making fun of Reefer Madness and making light of Ecstasy. Or whatever.

PPS the forecast said snow for tomorrow, but cold though it is I doubt it. Manky though snow would be around here anyway. “It’d be like snowball Urban Warfare,” I said earlier this evening. “Like Stalingrad. Charging through the slush, over the barriers. Two rounds to a man. Use them wisely.”

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A place you’ll probably never go

Who’da thunk it? The Obama election has borne unexpected fruit: the rebirth of the ironic commercial.

Could this have run three months ago? To a public whose appetite was not yet salted by bass tones of wry, knowing polity? A public not yet used to having its base impulses gently ribbed then warmly embraced, Scranton-style? A public not yet confirmed in being suckers of a different stripe? Never mind Peoria, the new index of American consensus is a place you’ll probably never go.

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fists of irony

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ascension

eurionsvgOpen Letter to the Man, supplementary: the project to convince my local magazine employer to build a free forum. I’ve been spending time reading the legal contracts used by webhosting companies, particularly Bluehost. Now, if anyone has any advice or horror stories about choosing one hoster over another then I’d love to hear it, but I’ve spent far too long reading glowing endorsements on what turned out to be shell review sites to believe any host is going to be perfect. I’d settle for perfectly well-meaning, but it’s in the nature of legalese that these companies have already prepared themselves for abuses not yet thought of, and in doing so retain the kind of powers that would give the average Free Culture reader an aneurism.

Below is an extract from the ToA used by Bluehost, which seems to be fairly standard. The terms may be altered at any time without notice, and use or continued use of any of the company’s services constitutes aquiescence to the terms. Maybe it’s a mark of my generation that I found the inclusion of profanity surprising. It’s a very specific kind of freebooter ignorance: I can scroll through linear miles of images of truly awful things without batting an eyelid but I balk at the notion that someone might seriously try to limit the distribution of such things through their hardware and under their questionable legal “jurisdiction”.

Feel free to skim.

12. Child Pornography. The use of the Services to store, post, display, transmit, advertise or otherwise make available child pornography is prohibited. BlueHost.Com is required by law to, and will, notify law enforcement agencies when it becomes aware of the presence of child pornography on, or being transmitted through, the Services.

13. Other Illegal Activities. The use of the Services to engage in any activity that is determined by BlueHost.Com, in its sole and absolute discretion, to be illegal is prohibited. Such illegal activities include, but are not limited to, storing, posting, displaying, transmitting or otherwise making available ponzi or pyramid schemes, fraudulently charging credit cards or displaying credit card information of third parties without their consent, and failure to comply with applicable on-line privacy laws. BlueHost.Com will cooperate fully with appropriate law enforcement agencies in connection with any and all illegal activities occurring on or through the Services.

14. Obscene, Defamatory, Abusive or Threatening Language. Use of the Services to store, post, transmit, display or otherwise make available obscene, defamatory, harassing, abusive or threatening language is prohibited.

The whole hosting edifice works because no-one seriously expects hosts to ever really act upon the caveat emptor they supply. The companies are just covering their backs in case of the advent of an iPatriot Act, and leaving themselves room to exercise a common sense policy in the case of extreme misuse of the format. At least it’s an American company, and as such has a notion of the broadly positive terms of Fair Use, which legally empowers a common-sense approach that’s often assumed to also be enshrined in British Law, which of course it isn’t.

[Two sides to googling “fair use”: hundreds of Fat Boy Slim album torrents “defending Fair Use”, and the story of the star of his first album cover who sued for unlicensed use of image. The court ruled that because he was smiling in the picture, he had wanted to have his picture taken, thus constituting fair use. Thanks to Japanman.]

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An assumed ‘common-sense’ pseudopolicy, such as it is, is communicated in the Bluehost contract  where specific, severe abuses such as child abuse imagery or copyright infringement are referred to in earlier clauses, while the more catch-all terms like “profane material” come in later, shorter clauses impling a generalised right to refuse. Though it’s always the short clauses you have to watch out for.

Of course, if you don’t like it, you can buy your own server. Or don’t, and stay in a backwater, certain that you’re aware of every foreign or polluting current which enters your pond, and handle it as you see fit. My generation has been forced to concede that being aware of something, being able to speak its language, discuss it, even fictionalise it, does not necessarily convert you, make you an advocate, make you tainted by it.

Yet at the same time everyone familiar with the internet has seen the same natural cycle countless times: where any decent forum will eventually become more dimwitted and drama-ridden as more and more unknown entities arrive and start ‘fluencing the tone, till everyone good leaves. It’s even happening to the Achewood assetbar, long the preserve of intelligent yet weirdly uncritical enthusiasts. No matter how good it is, it’s only a few trolls away from degenerating into flaming rubbishness.

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One of the lesser-known Livejournal Wars came around the middle of last year when thousands of people woke up to find their groups and pages banned.  At the request of Warriors for Innocence Livejournal had instituted a new policy aimed at cracking down on “paedophiles and their sympathisers”, groups and individuals using it to trade “sexually abusive images and ideas”.

The policy, however, was to ban every account which listed keywords like rape and paedophilia in its interests or registered a high number of hits on those words, resulting in the banning of several rape support groups and numerous fiction and fanfic-writing and trading communities. Livejournal, vast hive of self-absorbed drama that it is, erupted in outrage and the parent company pressed the ‘back’ button a few days later, going back through each banned site individually to verify its use.

To paraphrase Jay-Z: when you argue with fools from a distance people can’t tell who is who. But though it’s easy to make fun of Livejournal’s squalling mass, its users were rightly enraged that short-sighted policy had lumped thousands of them in with a tiny minority of genuine mis-users. Such is the potential of censorship. We trust whoever arbitrates it to share our sense of decency. Or we don’t, of course.

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I’m trying to set up a local forum for English-speaking foreigners in Japan, because we have enough of a name in our city to try to get most of the local online gaijin conversation happening under our banner. I’ve talked to my boss a lot about the need for a clearly laid out moderation policy.

He’s already more or less vetoed the idea of having a Japanese language forum at the same domain, in part because he doesn’t want conversations he can’t understand perfectly happening in his backyard. He also vetoed the idea because he has doubts whether he’d find a native Japanese speaker with the same notions of ‘moderation’ as us, or who’d express them in the untranslatable subtleties of forum-speak in a way he or I would agree with or even recognise.

Though I don’t agree with everything he says, Will Hutton has shown that braving accusations of neo-yellow-perilism can pay off. Japan is a very foreign place, not least in its often mystifying, even clandestine politics and its confusion of earnest Western-style Okinawa hippies, disconsolate consumerist teenagers, radicals of every stripe.

Once when I was just entering my teens I asked my Dad whether China and Japan weren’t, basically, the same, and he told me why not in some detail. A couple of years later I opined that America was pretty much like Britain, only more so. “No,” my Dad said. “America is the most foreign place I’ve ever been”, which at the time included Japan, Europe, Scandanavia and much of the Middle East.

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I started this blog to ask which seemed more distant, Japan or five years in the future? I’m pretty sure I have an answer, though not a very satisfactory one. Nothing will ever really be as foreign as the future, particularly when it comes to communications. But then, communication technology’s influence on the future is so unpredictable and so alien because that influence will increasingly be determined by people who ‘we’ in many ways do not understand.

The internet has exposed its values to people, making everything available free and without judgement. But that doesn’t mean that people are infected on exposure: you aren’t tainted, but you aren’t converted to a warts-and-all freedom-loving shareista. On English blogs the talk is always about forwards or backwards: whether the net will grow wild or be potted. But the real direction will be determined by people whose forums we can’t read or participate in. The truth is, right now the future is just as foreign as everyone else is.

ichi go ichi e

p

PS. the thumbnail image I use for technology posts is the so-called EURion constellation, which features prominently in the floral decorations on Japanese banknotes. I would scan in a version to show, but, you know.

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