November 20, 2014

Loan to own

Over the past fifty years, foreign "loan words" found in unabridged Japanese dictionaries have grown from 3.5 percent of entries to 10 percent. The number of loan words in everyday usage (prevalent in technical fields) exceeds 50,000.

South Koreans are no less reluctant to mine English for new terminology, which has led to a growing linguistic divide between North and South.

North Korean defectors such as Park Kun-ha, who fled in 2005, say the prevalence of English loanwords is a major obstacle to adapting to life in the South. "It's incredibly frustrating. They are everywhere, and it's essentially like learning a foreign language."

These loan words and "loan institutions" so quickly shed their foreign roots that some, like McDonalds, are often assumed to be native products of Japan (as explained here, the Mac computer is a foreign product, the PC not necessarily).

Over the past 1000 years, English speakers have proved themselves no less enthusiastic practitioners of "loan-to-own" linguistics. Kate points me to Paul Johnson's observation that

Chaucer saw French and Italian poetry not so much as models to imitate but as verbal shop windows from which he could steal words that as yet had no English equivalents.

Or as James Nicoll rephrased it:

We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary.

Which sums up the Japanese attitude towards lexicography as well. Unlike the French, Japanese don't fear a tide of foreign culture sweeping across their shores because they know that in a few years they'll make it indistinguishably Japanese.

Related posts

Dancing girls
Fun with furigana

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November 17, 2014

The air that we breathe

Last month, Google executive Alan Eustace made the highest sky dive ever, jumping from an altitude of 135,890 feet and breaking the sound barrier in the process. At 24 miles high, the sky above is black, the curve of the Earth is visible, and the near-vacuum and extreme temperatures requires a space suit.

And yet he was only a third of the way to the official edge of "space": 62 miles. It's another 40 miles to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). And then 100 miles on top of that to get to the ISS.

That may seem like a long way to go. It's not. The Earth's atmosphere is ridiculously thin. The diameter of the Earth is 8000 miles. A good pair of lungs will take you up another three miles. If a commercial jet aircraft--cruising at seven to eight miles--depressurizes, you'll need that emergency oxygen mask to stay alive.

If we generously define the atmosphere as ending at LEO and compare the planet to a baseball, the atmosphere would be thinner than a dime. Applying this analogy to breathable air only, the atmosphere is thinner than a sheet of paper.

Talk apples instead of baseballs, and the Earth's atmosphere is the mere skin of the fruit. This strikes me as a bad design flaw in the inhabitable planet design spec, though if the atmosphere reached any higher, nothing in LEO would stay in orbit for long.

This "skin of life" reinforces what a strange creature gravity is, simultaneously the strongest force in the universe--that can crush a star into a black hole--and the weakest. The paradox is so profound that physicists seriously theorize that gravity leaking into alternate universes saps its actual strength.

But gravity alone isn't enough to keep an atmosphere down on the farm. A small, rocky planet requires a molten core to power plate tectonics and a magnetic field.

The magnetic field forms radiation belts that deflect the solar wind around the atmosphere (the solar wind collides with the atmosphere at the poles and creates auroras).

Mars, by contrast, lacks both volcanic activity and a strong magnetic field. Gases stripped away by the solar wind aren't easily replaced. So sans the above, terraforming Mars is a lost cause.

The Saturnian moon of Titan is shielded by the magnetosphere of its mother planet. Locked in a close orbit to Saturn, tidal forces heat Titan's icy interior, creating an atmosphere denser at its surface than Earth's.

Titan's atmosphere is 98 percent nitrogen, its lakes liquid methane (-179 degree centigrade). But Titan could become beach-front property when the Sun enters its red giant phase five billion years from now and cooks the Earth to a cinder.

Though a gamma-ray burst could do us in long before then. Or a really big asteroid. Closer to home, there's always the Yellowstone Caldera.

It's a miracle we wake up every morning still breathing. The improbabilities of dying are balanced out by the improbabilities of existing in the first place. Like Dr. Who's Clara Oswald, Earth is, for the time being, the "impossible girl."

For all we know, the gods could get restless tomorrow and knock over our beautiful house of cards and play pinochle on our snouts. Which brings to mind the last scene from Cabin in the Woods:

Dana: I'm so sorry I almost shot you. I probably wouldn't have.

Marty: Hey, shh, no. I totally get it. I'm sorry I let you get attacked by a werewolf and then ended the world. [incredulous] Giant evil gods.

Dana: I wish I could have seen them.

Marty: I know. That would have been a fun weekend.

I'm with Marty. The only regret I have about the world ending one day is that I (probably) won't be there to see it. Throughout Buffy and Angel, Joss Whedon kept trying to end the world as we know it (an underlying flaw in both series). In Cabin in the Woods, the monsters take over and the world ends for good. Finally!

But to conclude on a more tuneful note:

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November 13, 2014


Hero (2014 season) is streaming on Crunchyroll (right now you can watch the first half-dozen episodes for free).

It's a (mostly lighthearted) police procedural about an oddball bunch of Tokyo public prosecutors. The most eccentric of which is Kohei Kuryu (Takuya Kimura), the Dr. House of prosecutors. He never wears a suit and is addicted to American infomercials.

In the 2014 series, he's paired up with the extremely cute Keiko Kitagawa and hangs out at a bar whose taciturn and remarkably resourceful bartender never says anything but "Yeah, got it."

What makes it a police procedural rather than a legal drama is that Kuryu insists on re-investigating the cases he's given. Given the propensity the police to extract convenient confessions, this would greatly improve the Japanese justice system if actually done.

Especially considering that defendants are regularly grilled by prosecutors without a defense attorney in sight. In fact, the appearance of a defense attorney pre-trial is cause for curious looks and raised eyebrows, not an expected part of "due process."

Guaranteed access to a lawyer is there in the law, but surprisingly few defendants (in real life too) take advantage.

Unlike Law & Order, only the final episode ends up in court. Most cases are plea-bargained in the U.S. as well. However, based on television ratios, Law & Order is accurate, as only a teeny-tiny percentage of criminal cases ever go to trial in Japan.

Law & Order: Criminal Intent is the only series in the franchise that I watch, perhaps because it is the least realistic and most "Holmesian." In the real world, half of the cases they "solve" would get thrown out of court. In Japan, they'd all be slam dunks.

Essentially--and this is stated rather plainly in the show--prosecutors don't bother prosecuting unless you're already guilty.

If you are indicted in Japan, you have about a 0.1 percent chance of being acquitted. So Japanese courtroom dramas are about as realistic as Japanese murder mysteries. Or, for that matter, British murder mysteries (especially the ones that take place in Cambridge).

But this does mean that the public prosecutor's office in Japan is where a defendant's fate is truly decided, so Hero is pretty accurate in that regard.

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November 10, 2014

The Men from "Star Trek"

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968) holds up remarkably well half a century later (at least the first two seasons; the third reportedly sagged badly).

With Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo (created by Ian Fleming) and David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin (now Dr. "Ducky" Mallard on NCIS) in the leads, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was the forerunner of I Spy  (1965-1968) and Mission Impossible (1966-1973).

Though while Mission Impossible presaged a future of high-tech gizmo thrillers, Solo and Kuryakin are the cool, suave, deadly (and deadly funny) analog operatives that live on in characters like John Reese and Sameen Shaw (Person of Interest).

It certainly didn't hurt that back in an era when there were only three networks, shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. could cast from the cream of the up-and-coming Hollywood crop.

For example, a 1964 episode called "The Project Strigas Affair." It guest stars William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, along with Werner Klemperer (basically inhabiting the Colonel Wilhelm Klink character he would start playing the next year on Hogan's Heroes).

This was two years before Star Trek.

Shatner is utterly charming as a scientist who quits the rat race to start a small business with his wife (exterminating rats). They're recruited by U.N.C.L.E. to run a sting on a corrupt diplomat (Klemperer). It's a very Mission Impossible type plot.

What makes it all the more amusing is that a fairly subdued Shatner ends up playing the straight man to everybody else, and does rather well at that. It's not fair to say, "Hey, the man can act!" because Shatner delivered some fine performances on Star Trek.

The more accurate observation might be: "Hey, there was a time when Shatner wasn't Kirk!" Instead, it's Nimoy who hams it up as his (actually Klemperer's) nemesis in the "Evil Spock" role (playing dumb until he gets his revenge in the end).

Frankly, it's easy to see a lot of Spock in Nimoy's "Paris" on Mission Impossible as well. But because Nimoy defined the character in more subtle terms (makeup and backstory aside), he can say "I am not Spock," while Shatner will always be Kirk at his most bombastic.

Here's a collection of clips from that episode:

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November 06, 2014

Two Utah firsts

Tuesday night when I went to bed, Mia Love was trailing Doug Owens in Utah's fourth district congressional race. When I woke up Wednesday morning, she'd become the first ever black Republican woman in Congress.

From Utah, no less (according to the 2010 census, 1.1 percent black).

Love's political career began as mayor of Saratoga Springs, a town of 21,100 located at the northwest tip of Utah Lake. She came to national attention in 2012, when she addressed the Republican National Convention.

That year, despite the Utah legislature's best gerrymandering efforts, Love ran against political veteran Jim Matheson (son of the late Democratic governor) and lost.

After serving six terms, Matheson retired this year and passed the torch to Owens (like Matheson, the scion of an established political family). Owens did his level best to present himself as the most just-like-you family guy in Utah.

But the second time was the charm for Love. Republicans won by the expected landslides in Utah's other three districts. For the first time in decades, the Republican party holds all of the federal offices and the governorship.

Drawing in much of liberal (relatively speaking) Salt Lake City, the fourth remains Utah's only competitive district. So Love can expect a scrappy fight every two years.

Though that wasn't Utah's only political first Tuesday night. At the state level, Democrat Sandra Hollins was elected Utah's first ever black woman legislator.

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November 03, 2014

Digital mythbusting

No, analog music playback technology isn't "better" than digital. Dylan Matthews points out in Vox that the "warmness" of vinyl is a byproduct of the noise, bandwidth limitations, and mechanical dampening that playing a record involves.

A record needle is shaken back and forth many thousands of times a second to produce a piezoelectric or electromagnetic signal (it's a little electrical generator). Without artificial filtering known as "RIAA equalization," the needle would jump all over the record.

Add to that the noise produced by the motor and bearings spinning the record. "Vinyl" reproduces music by dragging a needle down a groove of serrated plastic. Okay, not fingernails across a blackboard but the same basic concept. It's amazing that it works as well as it does.

The same audio illusion is promulgated by vacuum tube amplifier buffs. The "warmness" of a vacuum tube circuit is a byproduct of the electrical noise (hum) and dampening that are an inevitably byproduct of the electronics and can never be eliminated.

Even with expensively-filtered filament current, you can never get rid of the thermal noise. Isolating the plate voltage (to keep the listener from being electrocuted) requires big transformers that also effectively filter out any high-frequency overtones.

I'm totally down with the assertion that it makes for a great sound, but there's nothing "natural" about it. (The same goes for "organic" food.) As Matthews puts it, "[Vinyl and digital] sound different, and that's exactly the point."

Christopher Montgomery explores in more rigorous scientific terms what Matthews is saying (and shows why Matthews had to correct his article to state that digital recordings do, in fact, replicate the whole audio wave). "Better" digital quality often isn't:

Neither audio transducers nor power amplifiers are free of distortion, and distortion tends to increase rapidly at the lowest and highest frequencies. If the same transducer reproduces ultrasonics along with audible content, any nonlinearity will shift some of the ultrasonic content down into the audible range as an uncontrolled spray of intermodulation distortion products covering the entire audible spectrum.

The quality of digital converters does make a difference, and have improved dramatically in the past decade. But just as a professional can take a good picture with a cheap camera and high-end equipment won't help a talentless amateur, the human element matters a lot.

The human element is really what this whole debate comes down to. Stuart Andrews pops a hole in the balloon of our sunk cost-inflated egos. At the end of the day, what investing the big bucks in high-quality MP3 players and headphones can really do is

give you more convincing arguments as to why one version sounded better than the other. In effect, they had better tools with which to convince themselves that their subjective impressions were correct, even when those impressions were entirely misleading.

Convince people to pay more for an object with the same performance specs and they'll value it more because of the sunk costs, the replacement costs, the invested self-image, and the good opinion of their fellow devotees. This is otherwise known as Apple's business plan.

And, yes, it's also true that the price/quality curve is generally positive. Though when it comes to modern electronics, the curve flattens out much closer to the low end than to the high end. Which is why you can get a decent LCD HDTV for $120.

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October 30, 2014

Richard: The Ethics of Affection

Richard St. Clair succumbs to a love potion and is soon ensnared in a tangled web of politics, romance, blackmail and magic. He's an engaged man, after all, and a recent government appointee. Now he must scour the city for the identity of his foe and find a way to ethically express the desires of his heart.

The second installment in the Roesia series, Richard: The Ethics of Affection continues the story of the St. Clair family begun in Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation (though both can be read on their own).


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October 27, 2014

Anarchists unite!

In Poseidon of the East, Rokuta (whose job it is to appoint the next emperor) says, "People can scrape by without an emperor. It takes an emperor to truly destroy a kingdom, to turn it into a wasteland where nothing can survive."

To really scorch the earth, as in a nonstop Sherman's March to the Sea, the means of destruction have to be led and organized.

In the conduct of his own personal life, Rokuta is more of a libertarian with a healthy disregard for centralized authority. Even though he chooses the emperor, he afterwards denigrates him with every other breath (the feelings are mutual, though they don't let it interfere with their work).

Libertarianism of late has become a synonym for anarchy. Even accepting that premise, anarchy as a political abstraction is not the same as chaos. Kant defines anarchy as "law and freedom without force," and Webster's (Random House) offers as one definition:

a theory that regards the absence of all direct or coercive government as a political ideal and that proposes the cooperative and voluntary association of individuals and groups as the principal mode of organized society.

In theory, of course. The typical rejoinder to the idealistic anarchist and strident libertarian is: "So do you want to live in a place like Somalia?"

It's one of the dumber strawman arguments out there. But as it turns out, somebody has answered that question for real. Peter Leeson at George Mason University analyzed the data and concluded that the average Somalian was, in fact, better off stateless.

State predation can actually reduce the welfare of the citizenry below its level under statelessness.

The data suggest that while the state of this development remains low, on nearly all of 18 key indicators that allow pre- and post-stateless welfare comparisons, Somalis are better off under anarchy than they were under government. Renewed vibrancy in critical sectors of Somalia's economy and public goods in the absence of a predatory state are responsible for this improvement.

The human proclivity to self-organize is so deeply rooted--it would have been a key trait advantaged by Darwinian selection--that it takes a real outbreak of entropy to eradicate it.

Sherman's March to the Sea lasted a little over a month, the Civil War four years. More prolonged conflicts such as China's Three Kingdoms period (220–280) and the Thirty Years' War in Europe (1618–1648) can indeed turn apocalyptic in the scale of destruction. Everybody looses.

Except China and Europe are still here. Civilization can take a drubbing and bounce back pretty quickly.

During its Warring States period (1467-1573), Japan's internal political order was similar to that of the Italian city-states. The tiny amount of arable land pretty much meant that the combatants had to live where they fought when the fighting was over. So "scorched earth" was pretty much out.

Armies march on their stomachs, and that requires a thriving agricultural economy plus a trading surplus, because guns and swords don't grow on trees. All the more reason to shepherd your resources, even when raining down fire.

NHK's historical dramas will usually toss in a few scenes depicting the warlord inspecting the fields, dealing with unhappy farmers, supervising the construction of levees, and auditing accounts. This was what warlords spent most of their time doing, not fighting.

Only a few scenes, grant you. Cinematic anarchy (The Road Warrior) makes for better fiction than reality. Push come to shove, I'd prefer a little too much government than too little. The problem is that a "little too much" has so easily turned into "way too damned much."

Even there, what concerns me the most isn't necessarily the size of government as the distribution of government. In other words, if you think Northern European countries represent the epitome of functioning democracies, first consider their size and population distribution.

Sweden, for example, has about the same population as North Carolina. Germany has twice the population of California (biggest in Western Europe) but is smaller in area than Montana. When distributing government services, population density matters too.

The "economy of scale" is the great temptation of modern-day governance. The problem is, building big things is easy. Managing them is hard. Far more people think they have the chops to run big organizations than they actually do. At least in the private sector, those people can be fired.

When it comes to governing, small is more than "beautiful." It's the only political philosophy that will reliably work over the long term.

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October 23, 2014

Hanasaku Iroha

Anime I've been watching on Hulu.

Ohana's mother runs off with her boyfriend (a step ahead of the debt collector) and sends Ohana to live with her grandmother, who owns an inn way out in the sticks. The grandmother is in no mood to play babysitter and promptly sets Ohana to work in the inn.

Ohana is the quintessential heroine of Japanese melodrama: can-do and relentless optimistic (to the point of driving her roommate bonkers). And yet Hanasaku Iroha manages to stay true to the core of its main characters, even at the cost of a happily-ever-after ending.

The grandmother had wanted Ohana's mother to take over the inn, but moving to the boonies is absolutely the last thing she has any interest in. The key dramatic arc in the series explores this irreconcilable conflict between the mother and grandmother.

So it's up to Ohana's uncle to manage the place. Except everybody knows--including himself--that he simply hasn't got the chops, even when joined by his MBA-grad girlfriend (incapable of uttering a sentence unadorned by incomprehensible American business jargon).

These nuts and bolts are treated with a light touch throughout, making Hanasaku Iroha an altogether pleasant comedy about running a small (failing) business in the country.

Along with the "how to" genre (how to run a hot springs inn),  Hanasaku Iroha also belongs to what I'd call the "wabi-sabi" genre. As Wikipedia defines it:

Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity (roughness or irregularity), simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes.

A more idealistic western counterpart might be the "Hudson River School," that paints the countryside with a sepia-tinted palette. As urban and rural Japan have grown further apart, that distance hasn't lent itself to cool objectivity but to exaggerated romanticism.

Nevertheless, Hanasaku Iroha comes to a bittersweet conclusion more closely aligned with the realities of modern Japan: things that can't go on forever won't, no matter how much positive mental energy is poured into them. Though there is always room for a sequel.

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October 20, 2014

L.M. Montgomery's free-range kids

I'd never gotten around to the last two novels in the Anne of Green Gables series. My brother Joe recently did. He didn't think much of Rilla of Ingleside or Kevin Sullivan's adaption (Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story).

I'd seen the latter too, which was in no way encouraging. Sullivan's Anne of Avonlea (also known as Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel) is a good example of how to deviate from the source material while keeping true to its substance and spirit.

The Continuing Story is a good example of getting it all wrong. Sullivan manages to turn Anne, as Kate puts it, into a "bucolic female James Bond." Yes, it's supposed to be about Rilla, but the lead had to be Megan Follows. Like I said, it's a mess.

Rather, Joe points to Rainbow Valley as the standout in the post-Green Gables books. So I clicked over to Project Gutenberg and downloaded it. And he was right. Rainbow Valley is a real gem.

As Joe points out, Rainbow Valley is less about the staid Blythe kids than the wacky Merediths. They're the offspring of the eccentric and widowed minister. Following the death of his wife, the children mostly raise themselves (not a social worker in sight).

Things only get dicier when Mary Vance shows up, the orphan girl they take in like a lost dog.

Mary Vance is the alternate universe version of Anne. While Anne coped by filling up on literature, focusing her mental energy inwards and fueling her imagination, Mary Vance turns hers outwards, with the goal of controlling the chaotic world around her.

Not surprising, given an upbringing that makes Anne's pre-Green Gables life look comfortable by comparison. Nowadays, Mary Vance would be cast as the pitiful victim on a Law & Order episode, a serial killer's childhood flashback on Criminal Minds.

"My grandfather was a rich man. I'll bet he was richer than your grandfather. But pa drunk it all up and ma, she did her part. They used to beat me, too. Laws, I've been licked so much I kind of like it."

Or pumped full of Ritalin and handed over to Child Protective Services. But a century ago, a tough childhood gave a kid "character." Indeed, Mary Vance isn't looking for excuses. To be a "victim" is to not be in control, and that's that last thing she wants.

Mary tossed her head. She divined that the manse children were pitying her for her many stripes and she did not want pity. She wanted to be envied.

With her considerable wit focused so long on day-to-day survival, the attendant niceties long ago went by the wayside. And so unconstrained by a still nascent superego, her id leaks out all over the place. She definitely gets all the good lines.

• "Mr. Wiley used to mention hell when he was alive. He was always telling folks to go there. I thought it was some place over in New Brunswick where he come from."

• "I haven't got anything against God, Una. I'm willing to give Him a chance. But, honest, I think He's an awful lot like your father, absent-minded and never taking any notice of a body most of the time, but sometimes waking up all of a sudden and being awful good and kind and sensible."

• "Give me Daniel [in the Lions' Den]. I'd rusher have it 'cause I'm partial to lions. Only I wish they'd et Daniel up. It would have been more exciting."

• "If one has to pray to anybody it'd be better to pray to the devil than to God. God's good, anyhow so you say, so He won't do you any harm, but from all I can make out the devil needs to be pacified."

As Miss Cornelia puts it, "If you dug for a thousand years you couldn't get to the bottom of that child's mind."

But Mary Vance hardly has the story all to herself. In the second half of the book, the misadventures of the untethered Meredith kids take over the story, along with the emergence of a possible romantic companion for their father (a sweet note to end on).

Reading Rainbow Valley is like listening to a gossipy small-town newspaper read aloud, the chronicler now and then stepping back from the narrative to offer an aside or two about her subjects. But always with the best intentions--and honest empathy--in mind.

Although I shy away from the omniscient point of view, Montgomery's relaxed command of the narrative is such that the "head hopping" never bothers me, and even imbues the story with a touch of magical realism that places it apart from the real world.

Though with the Great War just over the horizon, the book briefly breaks the reverie at the very end with a haunting bit of foreshadowing.

This was certainly a great part of Montgomery's appeal in Japan. Hanako Muraoka completed her translation of Anne of Green Gables during WWII. The Japanese edition was published in 1952. "Reality" was one thing they didn't need any more of.

Though as far as reality goes, Rainbow Valley hews closer to my own childhood (considerably less than a century ago) than the nanny state reigning today. Back then, the only parental constraint imposed on us as we flew out the door was: "Be home by dinnertime."


I found the rudimentary formatting of the Project Gutenberg file a tad annoying so I tweaked the ePub and Kindle versions (click on the links to download).

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October 16, 2014

Poseidon of the East (downloads)

The ePub and Kindle ebook versions for Poseidon of the East are now available on the downloads page.

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October 13, 2014

Side by Side

Produced and narrated by Keanu Reeves, Side by Side nicely documents the recent history of digital cinema, how it supplanted traditional silver halide film almost overnight, and raised the hackles of the purists (to mostly no avail).

Reflecting trends on the still camera side, ARRI, Panavision, and Aaton no longer make film cameras. That film and camera production peaked only ten years ago illustrates the rapid adoption of digital since 2002, when George Lucas shot Star Wars: Episode II entirely on digital.

There's plenty--a glut--of used film equipment lying around. The more pressing question is how much longer Kodak can afford to keep making (and chemically processing) celluloid film.

Fujifilm quit the motion-picture film business in 2013. Kodak's film sales have fallen a staggering 96 percent since 2006. Like vinyl LPs, there will always been a niche market. Whether the economics of film can continue to justify blockbuster quantities is another question.

Right now, it seems that only guaranteed minimum orders from a handful of Hollywood heavy-hitters are keeping the Kodak film franchise alive.

Television's quick adoption of digital also contributed to the rapid decline of film. But we should also pause to thank the original 35mm prints of Star Trek and other TV "classics" for the brilliant, high-def versions available today.

Along with a brief history of the evolving digital film technologies, Keanu Reeves interviews directors and cinematographers with competing analog vs. digital loyalties. If nothing else, this documentary rekindled my admiration for George Lucas as a technological pioneer.

Digital projection is the last frontier. That frontier is closing fast. In its heyday, most of the motion picture film stock Kodak made was used for theater projection prints. That market sector has taken biggest hit as theaters switched to digital projection.

IMAX was a lone holdout for a while. The last 70mm IMAX theater in Los Angeles will have a 4K laser projection system by the end of 2015.

As with still film cameras, the question not "if" but "when." The most ardent film aficionado has to admit that the best film stock in the world is ultimately no better than the worn-out print running through the crappy projector with the dim bulb in the local mall theater.

And lastly, there is the unavoidable irony of watching a documentary about the motion picture business in which the "old timers" extol the aesthetic superiority of analog--using digital technology.

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October 09, 2014

Poseidon of the East (40-41)

I've posted chapters 40 and 41 of Poseidon of the East.

The nengou system (年号), called kokureki (国歴) in the novel, resets to year 1 upon the accession of a new emperor. In the past, an emperor could designate a new nengou whenever the fancy struck him, which Shouryuu seems fond of doing.

Taika (大化) and Hakuchi (白雉) are the earliest recorded nengou in Japanese history, marking the reign of Emperor Kotoku (645-654). Daigen (大元) is also the name of the Great Yuan Empire, founded by Kublai Khan after he conquered China in 1271.

Japanese of Shouryuu's time would have been quite familiar with Kublai Khan, thanks to his two failed invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281, ultimately foiled each time by the "Divine Wind" or Kamikaze.

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October 06, 2014

Let them eat Cheerios

In the universe of The Twelve Kingdoms, Japan and China exist in a parallel dimension that can only be accessed by wizards and kirin ("were-unicorn"), using a kind of (destructive) wormhole called a shoku. From the prologue to Poseidon of the East:

At the ends of the earth was an ocean called the Kyokai, the "Sea of Nothingness."

Two realms sat at the borders of its eastern and western reaches. Although normally cut off from each other, with no communication or commerce passing between them, the same legend had arisen in each--of a land of dreams far across the horizon.

Only a chosen few could visit that blessed and fertile place, where riches gushed forth like fountains, whose people, free from pain and suffering, neither grew old nor died.

In Shadow of the Moon, Rakushun articulates the substance of the legends:

"It's said that the people of [Japan and China] live in houses made of gold and silver, studded with jewels. Their kingdoms are so wealthy that farmers live like kings. They gallop through the air and can run a thousand miles in a single day. Even babies have the power to defeat youma [monsters]."

Rakushun looked at Youko expectantly.

Youko shook her head with a rueful smile. What a strange conversation this was. If she ever returned to her old world, nobody would believe her. Fairy tales, they'd say. And here, her world was a fairy tale as well. She laughed to herself. She'd believed all along that this was the strange and mysterious world. But in the end, wasn't she and the place she came from all the more so?

Actually, Rakushun is onto something here.

Farmers in any developed nation today live longer and better than medieval kings. Vaccinations, antibiotics, and water chlorination can defeat invisible demons once responsible for a 30 percent childhood mortality rate. You can fly from Seattle to Tokyo in 10 hours.

In 1866, Tokugawa Iemochi, the second-to-last shogun, died of heart failure at the age of twenty, presumably due to beriberi. Considering that the third-to-last shogun went bonkers and died at the age of 34, two centuries of inbreeding was probably taking its toll too.

In any case, beriberi is a disease brought on by vitamin B1 deficiency. Thanks to enriched flour, beriberi is almost nonexistent in developed countries today. A bowl of Cheerios a couple of times a month could have prevented it (and many other diseases).

The shogun was done in by a diet of polished white rice the poor couldn't afford. In the time travel series Jin, Dr. Jin Minakata invents yam donuts to save an old lady who won't eat anything but white rice because, you know, she's not poor anymore!

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