December 22, 2014

Two chirps for cricket


I get One World Sports in my international satellite package. Its unofficial motto: "Covering all the sports too boring and obscure even for ESPN2." Like soccer, which I discuss at length here.

Some of the "obscure" sports are popular American sports played elsewhere (Japanese baseball, Chinese basketball). But most are obscure for good reason, such as snooker (nine-ball with a bunch of needlessly confusing complications).

Darts, though, is fairly interesting simply because of the math involved.

Then there's table tennis, which looks terrible on television. They should use an orange ball or try that puck-tracking technology once employed in a futile attempt to make hockey interesting to the American sports fan.

Badminton is better. The shuttlecock slows itself down by design. It still suffers from being a "volley" sport: an object gets smacked back and forth (and back and forth and back and forth) until somebody misses.

Volleyball is the best "volley" sport. The ball is big, easy to follow, and each team can do something interesting with the ball before hitting it back. Thus the athletic skills on display rise above the purely reflexive.

But no matter how impressive the skills, in the end it's the same thing over and over. Volley sports are definitely more fun to play than they are to watch (beach volleyball having found the obvious solution to that problem).

But there is one not-made-in-America sport worth watching. Cricket! Well, cricket matches with all the boring stuff taken out (true of sumo too: a day's worth of boring live sumo coverage can be wrapped up in thirty exciting minutes).

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

The roots of baseball are obvious in the sport. Baseball "fixed" cricket the same way American football fixed rugby: by proceeding in a stepwise fashion that gives each team the opportunity to stop and think and respond to what just happened.

This leads to offensive and defensive strategies that require the players to act together in a coordinated way over time, producing, for example, this 2-6-3-4-5-3 double play.


Because there are only two bases in cricket, there's no way to execute a base-running offensive strategy during play. Once the batting order is decided, its all up to the batsman to hit the ball as often as possible.

And some of them can really hit that ball! Cricket essentially turns batting practice into a sport. Now, as batting practice goes, it's pretty interesting.

The equipment makes it fairly easy to hit the ball. The ball is heavier and harder than a baseball, and it's bounced to boot, so it's difficult to hit well. Only the catcher wears gloves, so it's harder to catch too.

The batsman stands right in the strike zone. Hitting him is fair. That's why cricket batsmen are padded up like hockey goalies.

Runs are scored by running back between the two bases. One "strike" and the batsman is out. He can also get thrown out and caught out (like baseball). Hit a part of his body in the strike zone and he's out.

On the other hand, there's no foul territory. It's impossible for the defense to cover the outfield, and a good batsman can hit the ball where the fielders aren't. Though that does make defensive plays all the more remarkable.

The equivalent of a ground-rule double in baseball scores 4 points in cricket. An actual home run is worth 6 points. You can see why cricket produces scores in the hundreds.

Cricket also has the coolest, so-very-British terms for stuff in sports, like wicket, maiden, overs (always plural), beamer and yorker. A batsman isn't "out." He's "dismissed." How polite.

Cricket consistently creates highlight reel moments. The bowling (pitching) is wild and crazy. One batsman can score a hundred runs and the next zero. Catching "foul tips" and pop flies without gloves is pretty impressive.

But again, cricket's one major failing is the inability of the offense to mount any kind of strategy beyond the batter order. Cricket needs another base, and should switch sides every out or every set number of overs.

As far as that goes, it'd be interesting to score baseball the same as cricket: each base reached equals a run. A home run would score 4 and a base hit would score 1. It'd definitely revitalize the Ichiro Suzuki style of "small ball."

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December 18, 2014

The future past of fashion


Musing about the "look and feel" of Stargate SG-1, Kate observes: "Here's the truth about fantasy & sci-fi and clothes: the older they look, the cooler they are."

Or to put it another way: you're not likely to invent fashions (or architecture) better than what's already been dreamed up and put to the test of time. The best way to predict the future is to wait until it's in the past and then take a close look at it.


Thus Stanley Kubrick got it right in 2001 by giving his astronauts a conservative military look instead of taking his cues from the hipster 1960s. This 1947 photograph of Chuck Yeager sitting in the Bell X-1 cockpit is pretty much timeless.


Seriously, that could be Han Solo. George Lucas popularized what might be called the "space cowboy aesthetic": the kind of well-worn, practical work clothes that have barely changed since the mid-1800s.

For Darth Vader, Lucas reached further back, giving him a helmet (kabuto) straight out of Japan's Warring States period.


Japanese clothing has held up well over the past four centuries. As a general rule, if what was fashionable 150 years ago is fashionable today, it'll probably be fashionable a century from now. Which is why James Bond still wears a tuxedo.

Projecting the past into the future, consider the battle dress of the 16th century military strategist Kuroda Kanbei (played by Jun'ichi Okada). Want to dress your invading aliens-from-outer-space in something cool? This outfit will do nicely.

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December 15, 2014

Reframing the mainframe plot


I've ranted about this before, but the mainframe-as-antagonist (commanding an army of dumb terminal minions) was a well-worn theme fifty years ago. It's so overdone by now you can't stick a fork in it: it's mush. And yet Hollywood keeps serving it up.

Because, well, we keep chomping it down.

Conquering the galaxy since the 1950s.

Even the ending of Edge of Tomorrow (without a computer network in sight) is straight out of The Phantom Menace. And straight out of Oblivion, the previous Tom Cruise SF post-apocalyptic, blow-up-the-alien-mainframe actioner.

Making it an organic mainframe is a slight improvement, but just as dumb. The whole "hive mind" thing needs to go too.

Of course, destroying a single machine in a single place and winning the war everywhere makes for easy denouements. But if the Earth is ever attacked by malevolent aliens who know how to implement autonomous distributed network technology, we are so screwed.

That aside, though, what do the aliens hope to accomplish by attacking Earth so piecemeal? Or attacking Earth at all? (Besides giving the director an excuse to restage the Battle of Britain or the Invasion of Normandy.)

If they wanted to wipe out humans along with the infrastructure--the whole objective of the Independence Day aliens--there's no need to get anywhere near the planet's surface, as Heinlein pointed out back in 1966 with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

De-orbiting asteroids does the job nicely. And there are lots of big asteroids out there.

Another reason is: they want our water. But there is plenty of easily-accessible water elsewhere, and not at the bottom of a deep gravity well. Europa, for starters.

Then there's the "To Serve Man" plot device. But homo sapiens is a lousy food/energy source (The Matrix is dumber than dirt in this regard). That's why so few people get eaten by sharks (surprisingly few!).

Besides, a blown-up country is a huge resource sink. Hence the Marshall Plan. By 1950, the U.S. government was already regretting Article 9 in the 1947 Japanese Constitution (forbidding war) and was revving up Japanese industry to support the Korean War.

In The Phantom Menace, George Lucas tosses the politics of trade into the picture, but without demonstrating the slightest comprehension of what was being traded, why or how. The result is a blur of handwaving when it comes to the actual story.

The economic model of the Star Wars universe makes no more sense than the socialist utopianism of Star Trek, which finally gave us the robber baron Ferengi to make things interesting.

Still, Lucas was onto something. The "unequal treaties" imposed on Japan and China by the U.S. and European powers in the mid-19th century led to the Boxer Rebellion in China and propelled Japan into a regional arms race in order to even the scales.

Lots of dramatic conflict there. The thing is, China and Japan had stuff the foreign powers wanted. And at the time, a bad trade deal was a better deal for both sides than smash and grab.

And so we're back to the Lebensraum ("living space") ideology promulgated by Germany in the 1930s. (The Nazi bad guy connection certainly doesn't hurt.) The Japanese equivalent was used to justify the annexation of Korea and Manchuria around the same time.

Both Germany and Japan were doing rather well at expanding their territories (employing "unequal treaty" tactics) before they started actually invading their neighbors, after which everything went downhill fast.

So we'll assume our invading aliens are smart enough not to turn the whole thing into a scorched-earth shooting war. The problem is how to make that interesting.

A good place to start is Ryomaden, which describes in detail the "opening" of Japan in the mid-19th century, the shock to the system, the unequal treaties, the civil strife and then civil war that launched Japan on a burning quest to surpass the west.

If gunboat melodrama is what you want, (bad) diplomacy seems pretty good at supplying the necessary Sturm und Drang motivations. Kudos to Guardians of the Galaxy on this score (though I hope they dispense with the same-old apocalyptic climax in the sequel).

The problem is the interminable time frame of real politics. Ryomaden runs 42 episodes. Summing up two decades of realistic geopolitics in two hours would be tough. I suppose it really is simpler to just have Tom Cruise blow up the mainframe.

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December 11, 2014

Massan


NHK's current morning melodrama (Asadora) is doing something it's never done before: cast a non-Japanese actor in the title role.


Newcomer Charlotte Kate Fox (Northern Illinois University, MFA Acting) plays Scotswoman Ellie Kameyama, wife of Masaharu Kameyama (Tetsuji Tamayama), the scion of a sake-brewing family who brought whiskey to Japan.

Like Hanako and Anne, this is a fictionalized account of real people: Jessie "Rita" Cowan (1896-1961) and Masataka Taketsuru (1894-1979), the "father" of Japan's distilled spirits industry. "Massan" was Cowen's nickname for her husband.

They met in Scotland while Masataka was researching whiskey making. His research paid off well: this year, "Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013" was named the world's finest. Masataka Taketsuru was one of the founders of the Yamazaki distillery.

Yamazaki was subsequently acquired by Suntory. Masataka and Rita moved to Hokkaido to establish Nikka (now owned by brewing giant Asahi).

Fox isn't Scottish and doesn't have to be: 95 percent of her dialogue is in Japanese. Besides her acting skills and onscreen presence, she was probably hired for her ability to speak Japanese. Or recite Japanese, since she hadn't studied Japanese before.

This isn't unheard of for Hollywood actors, though some do better than others. Marlon Brando speaks pretty good Japanese in Teahouse of the August Moon. Richard Chamberlain does poorly in Shogun. Tom Cruise isn't bad in The Last Samurai.


But Fox is tackling a huge amount of material: six 15-minute episodes a week for half a year. When all is said and done, she will have memorized--spoken or reacted to--about 40 solid hours of Japanese dialogue, most of it fairly practical, everyday material.

Boy, is there a dissertation in this. Her pronunciation already qualifies as above average, thanks in large part to her tutor, who preps her scripts using heavily modified romaji. It'd be fascinating to regularly test her language abilities along the way.

She has a fine singing voice and probably a good ear for accents. Though the one thing she readily admits she can't do is speak Japanese with a Scottish accent (her Scottish English accent sounds okay to me).

In any case, considering the challenges of performing in a just-learned language, Fox is doing quite well. She has nice chemistry with Tetsuji Tamayama. Together they reveal Massan to really be a modern family sit-com with a historical setting.

As Peter Payne likes to point out, Japanese women often voice the same complaint as Emma Watson (and idealize American men no less):

The Harry Potter star said that even though men from the UK dress well and have good manners they take two months just to ask her out. Instead an American will come up to her straight away and suggest a date, a boldness she finds attractive.

In that light, by using Fox's Ellie as the extroverted "interloper" in a traditional Japanese family and business, Massan becomes a clever way to talk about marital relationships, and analogize that to Japan's relationships with the outside world.

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December 08, 2014

The beginning of the end


Alan D. Zimm argues on History Net (an essay excerpted from his book) that the 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor added up to a lot of shock and awe but was much less substantial in terms of accomplishing any of Japan's actual military objectives.

Far from being "brilliantly conceived and executed," the attack was so "plagued by inflexibility, a lack of coordination, and misallocated resources," that even after "ten months of arduous planning, rehearsal, and intelligence gathering," the details were still being worked out on the way to Hawaii.

As a consequence,

though armed with enough firepower to destroy up to 14 battleships and aircraft carriers, the Japanese landed killing hits on only three battleships; luck, combined with American damage control mistakes, added two more battleships to their tally. Not only was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor far from brilliant, it narrowly avoided disaster.

It is easier on the ego to attribute brilliance to the enemy that catches you flat-footed, though U.S. sailors did put up enough of a defense to dissuade Vice Admiral Nagumo from launching a third wave.

Zimm's description of the confused execution of the Pearl Harbor attack mirrors Eri Hotta's exhaustively detailed account in Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy of the absurd political machinations that led up to it.

Hotta comes to the same conclusion as Zimm. Noting that Pearl Harbor is typically described as "a brilliant tactical triumph but an awful strategic blunder," she doubts it was even a "tactical triumph."

[O]il tanks, machine shops, and other U.S. facilities were mostly left untouched. Japan was also unable to inflict damage on any of the U.S. submarines and aircraft carriers, which were not present in the harbor at the time. This, along with the fact that the harbor's shallow waters made the repair of damaged crafts easier, enabled a speedy recovery of U.S. naval might in the Pacific.

The attack on Pearl Harbor can best be understood as a desire to duplicate Japan's surprise attack on Port Arthur in 1904, inaugurating the Russo-Japanese War. A little over a year later, Admiral Togo's "Combined Fleet" wiped out the Russian Baltic Fleet at the Battle of Tsushima Straits.

History would not be repeating itself. Though in a purely military context, Yamamoto's fixation on Pearl Harbor was downright rational compared to the tangled web of politics that sanctioned it.

Hideki Tojo only became prime minister in October 1941 (and resigned in July 1944; he was not a "dictator"). By 1941, Japan had dug itself into a deep political hole, the self-inflicted wound of the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy being a case in point. And finding itself there, only dug faster.

Nobody knew what they were doing or why. Those in the government who understood the U.S. political landscape the best were too busy promoting their own agendas to apply that knowledge to the looming disaster before them. Tojo himself dithered back and forth.

But Tojo was a veritable Rock of Gibraltar compared to his predecessor, the hapless Fumimaro Konoe, who was against war with U.S. or for it depending on the day of the week.

Meanwhile, the Japanese army and navy fought each other over dwindling resources and for ideological justification. They couldn't agree amongst themselves what a war with the U.S. would accomplish or what the war in China had accomplished so far. Only that they had to do something.

Consequently, for the chiefs and vice chiefs of the general staffs, Hotta concludes,

it proved much easier to go along with the call for war preparedness initiated by the [war] planners than to try to restrain them. Talking tough gave these leaders an illusory sense of power and bravery when the rest of the leaders openly dithered and vacillated between war and peace, unable to articulate an emphatic no.

In the end, Japan's decision to go to war with the U.S. can be summed up as follows:

Japanese Cabinet: We have to do something!
Admiral Yamamoto: This is something.
Japanese Cabinet: Okay. We'll do that!

After a decade of waging an unwinnable land war in Asia, given the chance to do something, Yamamoto couldn't resist the challenge. And yet he was also aware that everything was riding on the Kantai Kessen theory of naval battle: that a single, decisive confrontation would settle things.

As a coolheaded political analyst, Yamamoto warned the naval general staff in Tokyo in late September 1941 that "a war with so little chance of success should not be fought." But at the same time, as an operational planner, Yamamoto, Japan's most informed commander and its biggest gambler, could adamantly insist on the adoption of his Pearl Harbor strategy even though he knew the United States would not give up the fight easily.

Ultimately, how well or poorly the attack on Pearl Harbor was executed made no difference. What William Tecumseh Sherman predicted about the South in 1860 was no less true of Japan in 1941: the U.S. only had to survive to fight another day. In time it would bury the enemy with sheer industrial output.

On both sides of the Pacific, the die was cast long before the shooting started. As Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully argue in Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway,

The seeds of Japan's defeat were not planted in the six months of easy Japanese victories that led up to the battle [of Midway], but had instead been sown in the very earliest days of the Imperial Navy's development.

Japan's biggest miscalculation was believing it had to engage the U.S. militarily in order to accomplish its (albeit delusional) objectives. That mistake made, it was doomed. Japan's world war, that began in earnest with Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937, effectively ended on 7 December 1941.

What followed in the next four years was the long and bloody denouement.

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December 04, 2014

Imamatsuribe no Yosofu


An old high school classmate contacted me on Facebook and wondered if could read what was written on this flag. The father of a family friend had brought it home at the end of WWII (click to enlarge).


The characters across the top are straightforward: 「武運長久」 "May the fortunes of war favor you forever." (The left-to-right switch for reading horizontally-written characters came right after the war.)

The characters radiating out from the "Rising Sun" (Hi-no-maru) in three concentric bands are the signed names of the soldiers in the company.

I couldn't make out what was written at the top right in old cursive script (read vertically top-to-bottom, right-to-left). So I asked a Japanese friend.

It's a poem credited to an 8th century frontier guardsman by the name of "Imamatsuribe no Yosofu," written while he was serving in a remote garrison on the island of Kyushu in southern Japan.

The poem is found in the Man'yoshu, the oldest collection of Japanese poetry, dating to 759 AD. Thanks to Google Books, I found several reference translations, which I've edited a bit.

「今日よりはかへりみなくて大君のしこの御盾と出立つ吾は」

From this day onward
without any homeward thoughts
I set forth as a lowly shield
of his Imperial Majesty.

A terrifically poignant word of parting, especially considering that most of them would never come home again.

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December 01, 2014

Groundhog D-Day


Take Groundhog Day and Independence Day and mash them together and you've got Edge of Tomorrow.

Based on All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, a smarmy Army PR flack (Tom Cruise) ticks off the wrong people and gets shipped to the front a day before a big invasion of France. Europe's been overrun by marauding aliens that fell from the sky. Great Britain is next.

He promptly gets killed and immediately starts living his life over again from 24 hours earlier. After dying several times in succession, he hooks up with a veteran warrior who's experienced the same phenomenon. Together they set out to track down the Big Bad destroying life-as-we-know-it.

The G.I. Jane (Emily Blunt) is called the "Angel of Verdun" and the movie begins with a modern-day Normandy landing. There's a brief graphic of the alien takeover of Europe that looks an awful lot like German troop movements circa 1939.

These nods to WWI/II help turn Edge of Tomorrow more into a war caper movie like Where Eagles Dare or The Guns of Navarone, where the heroes infiltrate enemy territory and destroy the big gun or the secret command center or whatever.

(In any case, didn't you always wonder what was really hiding under that goofy glass pyramid at the Louvre? Art? Ha!)

None of this gets belabored because when you're being that obvious, there's no need to point out the obvious. Motivations don't much matter. That's the convenient thing about fighting Nazis (and other monsters): they're just bad, no complicated moralizing or rationalizations required.

I give director Doug Liman high marks for not explaining anything that doesn't need explaining. Comic book movies should stop trying to be anything but comic book movies and own the genre proudly. No need to pad on thirty more minutes scrambling about for "substance" when there isn't any.

I mean, in some movies, this is what the entertainment factor really boils down to.

So nobody takes themselves any more seriously than they need to, and the mostly bloodless techno-violence is leavened by a pervasive dry wit that is honestly funny at times and keeps any potential dreariness at bay.

Nevertheless, Edge of Tomorrow taps into so many well-worn S.F. memes that you could easily sum up the whole screenplay in a half-hour Twilight Zone episode (and Rod Serling could pack in a bunch more substance to boot).

But it does the same-only-different very well. Cruise has this kind of role down pat, and he and Blunt strike the right chords together. Granted, they're playing the same trick on the audience that Groundhog Day does, portraying a "developing" relationship that is entirely one-sided.

And come to think about it, the same trick as the ending of Oblivion, another Tom Cruise post-apocalyptic SF actioner (though done not nearly as well: for starters, it takes itself too seriously and doesn't adequately set up the happy-ending payoff).

Big deal. Why quibble about narrative consistency when the big climax and crowd-pleasing denouement tie everything up with a nice big bow? Edge of Tomorrow is a feel-good actioner whose only real message is that war in the future will also be hell but still a lot of fun to watch.

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November 27, 2014

To Serve Man


That, of course, is the classic Twilight Zone episode (hilariously retold as "Hungry are the Damned" in The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror I).

The title comes from a book by an advanced alien race that has conquered Earth with supposedly the best intentions in mind. A lone linguist persists in translating the substance of the book, too late discovering that "To Serve Man, it's--it's a cookbook!"

As Rod Serling's closing narration puts it,

Or more simply stated, the evolution of man. The cycle of going from dust to dessert. The metamorphosis from being the ruler of a planet to an ingredient in someone's soup. It's tonight's bill of fare from The Twilight Zone.

"Sooner or later, we'll all be on the menu--all of us." Which is true, biologically speaking. Consider, for example, the 100 trillion bacteria living in your gut. While you're alive, they strengthen

the immune system and maintain a healthy gastrointestinal tract, all in exchange for a constant food supply. But when you die, your friendly gut flora quickly become your gut foe. Without food, the microbes escape your GI tract through the circulatory system and spread to your other organs, feeding on your dying cells and colonizing your body.

In other words, kicking the bucket makes us the main course. Reading this, I recall that in the Twelve Kingdoms, when a kirin dies, his shirei (servant beasts) get to eat him. Sort of a quid pro quo thing for getting bossed around their whole lives.

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November 24, 2014

Ryomaden


I've long hoped that NHK would start distributing its Taiga historical dramas on U.S. streaming sites. Well, NHK has taken a big step in that direction. Ryomaden, one the most popular recent series, is now available (free) on Hulu.


Played by Fukuyama Masaharu (Galileo), Sakamoto Ryoma was one of the most influential figures of the mid-19th century. Japan's version of Alexander Hamilton, he founded Japan's first private corporation and drafted the outlines of the Meiji constitution.

Ryoma was assassinated by government agents in 1867, a year before the Tokugawa shogunate was overthrown. His story is entwined with that of Iwasaki Yataro (Kagawa Teruyuki), a fellow Tosa countryman who would build on Ryoma's work to create Mitsubishi in 1870.

An intense and engaging character actor, Kagawa delivers a bravura performance as a disenfranchised samurai pulling himself up by his bootstraps with every ounce of his strength. These lower-class samurai were the principal agents of change in the Meiji Restoration.

The Perry Expedition to Japan in 1853 was the turning point both in Ryoma's life and that of the nation. Ryoma's reaction to the mind-bending technology of a steamship was: "I want one of those."

He would eventually get one.

Quite unintentionally, the depiction in Ryomaden of this clash between East and West, between feudalism and modernism, and tradition and technology (especially weaponry), well captures how an actual encounter with "advanced" aliens might affect the human race.

The challenge is to accommodate the new without becoming unmoored from the past, because what's already there isn't going anywhere (and would stick around for decades).

The authoritarian regime that had ruled for 250 years simply couldn't keep up, and was overwhelmed by the change bubbling up from the provinces. Alas, in only 75 years the new regime would grown just as sclerotic and ultimately fail even more catastrophically.

But following the barely-contained chaos of the Meiji Restoration, for a few short years wistfully remembered as the "Taisho democracy" (1912-1926), Sakamoto Ryoma's vision of a New World came true.

Though he might be more surprised that the political factions he helped birth in Tosa (his home province), Satsuma and Choshu (the original rebel provinces) were still moving and shaking today. Prime Minister Abe is, in fact, a Choshu man.

Ryomaden runs 42 episodes, so we're talking about a serious investment of time. Familiarity with the geographical and historical context is presumed (foreigners like  Matthew Perry and Thomas Blake Glover also play key roles), so keep a Wikipedia window open.

Speaking of Fukuyama Masaharu, season 2 of Galileo is streaming on Hulu. The only big change from season 1 is that Kishitani Misa (Yoshitaka Yuriko) replaces Utsumi Kaoru (Shibasaki Kou) as the detective who depends on the professor's crime-solving skills.

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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


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 Oxford).

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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