June 30, 2016

The streaming scythe

What at first appeared to be a full-scale purge of anime at Hulu turned out to be a far less-drastic but systematic cull of low-rated titles. Live-action Japanese television series are pretty much gone altogether (as always, Korean dramas are alive and well).

So what threatened to be a ruthless application of the 80-20 rule ("Twenty percent of inventory accounts for eighty percent of sales") was more the lopping off of the bottom 10 percent. The way CEO Jack Welch once boasted of running General Electric.

I suspect Hulu will be repeating this "Rank-and-Yank" process on a regular basis. In other words, truncate the long tail and concentrate on hits. Or at least the mid-listers and up. And let's be clear: including the midlisters and up, Hulu still has a ton of anime.

Incidentally, this is why Cosco has three times the earnings-per-employee as Walmart and thus can pay a higher base wage. Cosco carries about 4000 SKUs while Walmart warehouses a staggering 140,000. It costs big bucks to maintain that physical inventory.

When it comes to anime, Hulu wants to be more like Cosco. So does Netflix.

Or rather, more like HBO: produce a few shows that capture the cultural zeitgeist and backfill the rest with reruns of standard Hollywood fare. It's  about "narrow-casting" to the broadest possible audience. In other words, the subscription model since forever.

Rather than broadcasting a signal to the whole wide world and hoping a few percentage of available households tune in, send it instead only to the viewers who already have a vested interest in watching.

As the cable industry has long proved, if you can get subscribers hooked on one or two channels (or even one or two shows) and fiddle with the packages to hide the sunk costs, they'll stick around out of sheer momentum.

In his 2004 treatise on the subject (and 2006 book), Chris Anderson cited Netflix as an example of the long tail in action. Streaming would seem to bolster his argument. Except what Netflix really wants is a heavily curated long tail. That's not too long.

Justin Fox at Bloomberg confirms that

Today's Netflix and its "brand halo" seem to have a lot more in common with existing TV channels, most obviously HBO, than the back-catalog specialist that it was back in 2006.

I don't think Chris Anderson was wrong about the long tail, simply wrong about it aggregating under one roof, the exception being virtual department store retailers like Amazon and Walmart. But even those behemoths can't stock everything.

The long tale very much exists, except it's been it's been stretched and scattered across all creation. So it takes a bit of dowsing to find the viable concentrations of your particular ore.

One thing remains very true about Anderson's original thesis: going completely digital cuts inventory costs drastically. The marginal costs for adding each additional title or user are close to zero.

Which is why Amazon could build out its existing infrastructure and turn AWS into such a profitable enterprise. And why every new software play must somehow leverage the "cloud." The challenge is what to do with it, how to collect and collate all the content to fill it.

Sure, information wants to be free, but the licensors are still going to charge whatever the market will bear.

And there's no better way to get control over content licensing fees than to produce it in-house. Though as HBO has discovered, getting irrationally exuberant with that approach can lose you your shirt.

Netflix has already been the principal producer on several anime series, and adapted Matayoshi Naoki's award-winning novel Hibana for a series that will be shown in all Netflix markets. Here the advantage goes to streaming over the traditional cable model.

But for those of us not so much interested in the smorgasbord?

The past is prologue and streaming economics hearkens back thirty years when the average middle-class household had a dozen magazine subscriptions (not counting the catalogs). "Big tent" at one extreme, (extremely) specialized at the other.

Such as a newsletter just for the QX-10. My dad subscribed to one of those. Today it'd be a website.

Going forward, the streaming market in the U.S. will probably be left with Crunchyroll, Funimation and maybe Hulu as the major online anime distributors, with Amazon and Netflix providing a generous but more curated catalog.

At the end of the day, though, when everything shakes out, we'll still have orders of magnitude more choices than the bad old days of praying for a single new anime release to show up at Blockbuster.

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June 23, 2016

A slice of Japanese life

The "slice-of-life" genre (manga and anime) intersects, but should not be confused with, "slice-of-realistic-life." Bunny Drop gives us a slice of life, but it's not quite "slice-of-life." Rather, it's better described as a family melodrama (quite a good one, in fact).

To put it in Studio Ghibli terms, Only Yesterday is slice-of-realistic-life (another good one). Whisper of the Heart is slice-of-life.

Of course, genre categories always get blurry at the edges. Hanasaku Iroha qualifies as a standard melodrama, replete with character development, a plot, and an ending. But its setting and emphasis on day-to-day life at a rural inn also tips it toward slice-of-life.

More importantly, a slice-of-life story doesn't weigh down the audience with heavy attitudes or a ponderous plot (at least not for long) and goes easy on the "meaning of it all." The tone is upbeat, the characters optimistic. If there are issues, people get over them.

In short, "stuff happens, mostly pleasant." A healthy serving of moe makes it easy on the eyes too. A touch of magical realism and nostalgia calms the nerves, even in the future. Aria and Yokohama Shopping Trip are two classic slice-of-life science fiction series.

As Wikipedia describes Yokohama Shopping Trip,

Whole chapters are devoted to brewing coffee, taking photographs, or repairing a model aircraft engine, sometimes with only a few lines of dialogue. [This emphasis on] the small wonders of everyday life makes the reader aware of their passing. In evoking a nostalgia for this loss, [the author] is following the Japanese aesthetic tradition of mono no aware.

In fact, the stories can be so plotless and meandering as to create a slight remove from reality. But not too far removed from reality, even when fantasy elements dominate the narrative.

Tamako Market is narrated by a talking bird. Kamichu! starts with Yurie getting turned into a Shinto goddess. Gingitsune is about a shrine maiden who can talk to her shrine's fox god. Flying Witch features, well, a flying witch (who, as it turns out, doesn't fly very much).

Geography can also achieve that "slight remove." Flying Witch, Non Non Biyori, and Hanasaku Iroha are based in rural or exurbia Japan, while Kamichu! takes place in a fishing village near Kure on the outskirts of Hiroshima, and Barakamon on a small island off the coast of Kyushu.

To the ninety-plus percent of Japan's urban population, these are magical settings that, as with NHK's perennial historical dramas, conjure up feelings of nostalgia for a bygone age that isn't quite yet gone for good in modern Japan.

(Here and here are side-by-side comparisons of the settings in Flying Witch and their real-life counterparts. Somebody at the studio did a lot of location scouting, probably also using the enormously useful Google Street View.)

Though there's nothing wrong with the cities and the suburbs. Consider the ever-popular K-On and Tamako Market (both recognizably made by the same production crew) and Strawberry Marshmallow.

The slice-of-life comedy typically has one live wire to play the boke (funny man) to the rest of the tsukkomi (straight man) and lead our little gang into one (minor) crisis after another. Our boke needn't be a comedienne or ha-ha funny. Quirky will do. It usually does.

Such as Yui, who joins a band when she can't play an instrument (K-On). Or Miu, a bundle of unconstrained kid id (Strawberry Marshmallow). Dera Mochimazzi, the talking bird in Tamako Market, is basically Bob Hope in the "Road" pictures he did with Bing Crosby.

But in all these cases, "real life" (or a close approximation thereof) eventually asserts itself, though with a focus on finding delight in the run-of-the-mill and beauty in the commonplace.

Related links

Aria [Netflix]
Barakamon [Hulu]
Flying Witch [CR]
Gingitsune [Hulu CR]
Hanasaku Iroha [CR]
Kamichu! [Netflix]
K-On [Hulu]
Non Non Biyori [CR]
Strawberry Marshmallow [Amazon]
Tamako Market [Hulu]

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June 16, 2016

The Cast Away Martian

"Hard" science fiction—science fiction that attempts to adhere to actual science—is hard. When making up stuff, the closer to reality, the higher the demands of verisimilitude. Almost nothing in a space opera like Star Wars is even scientifically plausible. Nobody cares because we accept from the start that it's closer in genre to a Disney fairy tale.

Hollywood's been on a hard science fiction binge of late, to varying degrees of success. The physics in Interstellar is more wishful thinking than science. Gravity turns the laws of orbital mechanics upside down. But The Martian, which maroons Matt Damon on Mars, is basically Apollo 13 and Cast Away (minus most of the angst) set a few years in the future.

In The Martian, man fights nature largely within the limits of current technology and without any bad guys out to purposely harm him. Oh, for a few minutes, they try to make Jeff Daniels into a villain to gin up some conflict. But two scenes later he goes back to playing a perfectly plausible NASA administrator.

The simple yet daunting goal of Damon's Astronaut Mark Watney is to survive until a rescue mission can return to rescue him. The problem is that with current technology, getting from the Earth to Mars takes six months at best. So he's got a lot of problem solving to do. A major motion picture that is about nothing but problem solving is a breath of fresh air.

Granted, in the space of two hours, the screenplay is going to have to gloss over a few aspects of the real world to keep the story moving. This is big budget motion picture, not a NOVA documentary.

Like, I'm willing to give the radiation thing a pass, because no manned mission is going to Mars in the first place without solving that vexing problem. They don't solve it in the movie either, they simply ignore it, the same way they mostly ignore the .38 Gs of gravity on Mars.

And unlike Tom Hanks shedding a real fifty pounds for Cast Away, Matt Damon didn't starve himself for the role; a scene toward the end showing us his gaunt frame (face hidden) is almost certainly a body double. He's wearing a space suit most of the time anyway.

Tacking down the Pathfinder lander, plugging it in and powering it on (interplanetary cable standardization at last!) a quarter century after it landed is an eye-roller. Still, I could roll with it just because it's such a cute idea.

And I loved the bit about digging up the RTG (radioisotope thermoelectric generator) and using it as a plutonium-powered handwarmer (accompanied by Damon's wry "Don't try this at home!" narration).

No, what first suspended my suspension of disbelief was the implication (again, in order to create more obstacles to cleverly overcome) that the astronauts had only a single point of direct communication with Earth. In fact, the Mars landers use satellite uplinks to talk to the orbiters, which relay the signals to Earth ground stations.

Likewise, it is beyond belief that an ATV the size of a small truck would be limited to line-of-sight communication. All of the later Apollo missions left working equipment and experiments on the Moon. The vehicle and the habitat would be studded with transponders and satellite dishes humming along long after the humans left.

Equally improbable is that the inner hatch door of a habitat in a near-airless environment wouldn't be sealable and built into the superstructure. To quote NASA, the purpose of such a hatch is to "isolate the airlock from the crew cabin." I bet Astronaut Mark Watney sure wishes he had one of those. They were standard equipment on the Space Shuttle, after all.

The first failure of the NASA resupply rocket was awfully predicable (more conflict creation). While I did appreciate bringing in the Chinese (China should be part of the ISS), the movie ignores that Russia, Japan, and the European Space Agency have comparable launch capabilities, not to mention ULA, Orbital ATK, and SpaceX.

Given the chance to save the day, Elon Musk would be all over this.

And yet I give it a solid A for effort. The Martian isn't one of those movies where the plot holes let all the air out of the suspense. It is a rousing Rubik's Cube of an adventure movie with a bunch of cheating aces tucked up its sleeve. Like the old Star Trek, it's often more interesting for its obvious flaws than for its dramatic successes.

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June 09, 2016


Chihayafuru is based on the award-winning manga by Yuki Suetsugu. It begins with Chihaya Ayase (her name is coincidentally the same as the first line of an Ogura Hyakunin Isshu poem) hanging recruiting posters for the high school karuta club. (See my previous post on the subject.)

Since there isn't a high school karuta club, she needs five members to form an official one (an official club gets an advisor, a budget, and a room).

Her first recruit is Taichi Mashima, one of the kids she learned karuta with in elementary school. The story then flashes back to their childhoods. Arata Wataya, the new kid in their elementary school homeroom class, is a karuta wizard, having been taught by his grandfather, a grand champion.

Chihaya, Taichi and Arata venture to the community center to join the local karuta club. The club president, Dr. Harada, is overjoyed to find three new members on his doorstep. Taichi is better than Chihaya. Arata is in a league of his own. But Chihaya is undaunted in her quest to be the best.

After elementary school, the three of them go their separate ways. In Japan, kids in the same neighborhood will usually attend the same elementary school; starting with junior high, the school they attend depends more on their academic goals and abilities.

Taichi is accepted into a prestigious junior high. Arata returns with his family to far-flung Fukui when his grandfather falls ill and grows out of touch. When we next meet him as an older teen, he speaks with a strong Hokuriku accent.

Arata has also grown out of touch with karuta. The most poignant dramatic arc in the first season involves Chihaya's efforts to re-inspire the person who first inspired her.

Now in high school, Chihaya has reached A-level, the highest rank in competitive karuta. But she's far from the top. Taichi hasn't played since elementary school but gets dragged along by Chihaya's enthusiasm. With another classmate they once competed with and two rookies, the club is on.

Chihayafuru follows the basic structure of the high school anime sports series. A big difference is that karuta isn't exactly a spectator sport. At first, there's no way to replay an entire karuta game in real time and hold our interest.

As the players get better and we become more familiar with the game, the competitions get longer, and begin to approximate real time. Similar to The Big Windup, commentary comes in the form of inner monologues that reveal the strategies, strengths, and weaknesses of each player and team.

Character profiles of the players and their opponents—examining what drew them to such an obscure and difficult sport in the first place—are depicted in often surprisingly intense melodramatic vignettes (accompanied by lush orchestration).

Now, stories about melodramatic teens usually appeal to me as much as fingernails scraping across a blackboard. A big problem with otherwise compelling teen romances like Kimi ni Todoke is that, as Kate puts it, the characters have too much time to "sit and around and get angsty."

A job, a sport, a serious hobby helps to mitigate that. The nascent love triangle (usually another annoying dramatic device) in Chihayafuru stays mostly nascent, largely because Arata is on the other side of Japan. And Chihaya's monomaniacal focus on karuta precludes such distractions.

Neither is it resolved (I'll have to start reading the manga). But there is a pay-off in the penultimate episode of season two when Oe (the club medievalist) realizes the implications of a poem Chihaya wrote for a homework assignment and lectures Taichi to pick up his game (a cute scene).

So there's a lot more involved than the protagonist going from success to success. Common to anime sports series,the struggle, the hard work and effort, the growth and the team effort are what matter the most.

Oe insists they wear traditional hakama and learn what the poems mean (think of how well the average educated person understands Chaucer). The club nerd calculates "batting averages" based on card placement. Taichi and Nikuman-kun rise quickly to match Chihaya's abilities.

For Chihaya, being the biggest fish in her own small pond doesn't mean there is nothing more for her to learn right where she is. She's still got a long way to go to become the "queen" of karuta. But her unrelenting passion for a game based on medieval poetry will surely take her there.

Crunchyroll has both seasons of the anime (scroll down for season one). The two live-action movies aren't available in the U.S. There are two Japanese/English bilingual volumes of the manga (more in French, for some reason) and thirty-one so far in Japanese (over ten million copies in print).

The videos below are from the 2016 Queen (women) and Meijin (men) matches. (I mentioned hakama above, which the competitors are wearing.)

Granted, at first it'll make about as much sense as, well, Cricket (though it should be obvious when a "dead" card is read). But once you've watched a season of Chihayafuru, you'll know exactly what is going on, even if you don't understand a word of Japanese.

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June 02, 2016

Poetry in motion

As discussed previously, there's a manga or anime for practically every sport, an entire subgenre for baseball alone. Competition makes for conflict and great story material, and that includes a fascinating series about a literary card game that quickly became one of my all-time favorites.

The game is kyougi (competitive) karuta, the latter word borrowed from the Portuguese carta during the Edo period and applied to Japanese playing cards in general. Here it refers specifically to the game of "singing karuta" or uta-garuta.

To be sure, even in Japan, more people know about karuta than can play with it with any competence. The Tokyo high school baseball regionals involve hundreds of teams. Only a dozen or so can muster enough members to compete in the Tokyo karuta regionals.

They'd all fit in a single gymnasium with room to spare.

The centuries-old game is based on a Heian period poetry collection known as the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu ("One hundred poems by one hundred poets"), compiled by the court noble Fujiwara no Teika in the 13th century. Not the kind of game that makes the average teenager sit up and take note.

In competitive karuta, given the first three lines of a waka, players pick the card with the last two lines. Skilled players can identify cards by the first one or two syllables of the poem. The game involves lots of memorization, short-term spatial memory, sharp hearing, and good reflexes.

The reader card is on the right. The player card on the left is
written in kana, a purely phonetic syllabary. (Courtesy Tofugu.)

The best players become experts in assimilation and coarticulation,  the phonological processes by which the articulation of one phoneme influences the pronunciation of the next. That way, two poems that begin with identical syllables can be differentiated before the second syllable is spoken.

Fifty cards of the one hundred are randomly selected, each player receiving twenty-five, which they arrange in front of them. They have fifteen minutes to memorize the cards before the game begins. So players line up their cards to maximize ease of location and speed of identification.

A reader proceeds through a full, randomized deck (there are CDs to practice with: set the player to shuffle play), meaning that fifty cards will not be in play. Mistakenly choosing a "dead" card will cost one of your own.

A live card can be—is often—selected from the group with a sweep of the arm. With well-matched players, quick reactions matter, so this sweeping motion may be executed with considerable force, sending the cards flying. Multiple cards can be selected if the target card is included.

Towards the end of a match, a player can group his remaining cards together and hit them all at the same time; though if none of those cards are the right card, a penalty is exacted.

A player can also reach over and grab a card from his opponent's side (which requires being able to read the cards upside down), and then give his opponent one of his own (again, a strategic move). The first person to empty out his side wins.

The result is a formal poetry reading combined with a fast-moving athletic performance that gives competitive karuta a "chess boxing" vibe. It really is "poetry in motion." The NHK World video below explains the rules of the game, and how phonology, statistics, and speed figure into winning strategies.

Oh, and that anime series? As referenced in the video, it's Chihayafuru. More about it next time.

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May 26, 2016

Prove it!

My previous review of Houdini & Doyle segues nicely into a discussion of apologetics vs. empiricism, or religious belief vs. the scientific method. In Houdini & Doyle, Doyle is the apologist (as is Mulder in The X-Files), while Houdini (Scully) is the questioning empiricist.

The apologist begins with a desired conclusion unalterably in mind. Religious apologists are honestly unapologetic about their faith not being open to question. They "want to believe" and seek out proof for their beliefs, rationalizing any convincing evidence to the contrary.

Most of us fancy ourselves cool, objective empiricists. The truth is, we're all—including scientists—unrepentant apologists.

In a 1953 address at General Electric (my father was in attendance), Irving Langmuir (Nobel Prize, Chemistry) recounted several examples of scientists going astray (details here) and observed,

These are cases where there is no dishonesty involved but where people are tricked into false results by a lack of understanding about what human beings can do to themselves in the way of being led astray by subjective effects, wishful thinking or threshold interactions.

Everyone wants to believe his own version of the truth, and digs in his heels the more it is challenged. For the scientist and explorer, that conviction is absolutely necessary in order to soldier on in the face of almost certain failure. And in the face of being flat wrong.

Columbus had to fervently believe in his version of world geography to sail off into the unknown.

The Portuguese dismissed Columbus's grant proposal because they knew his calculations for the circumference of the planet were wrong. Luckily (luck being a big part of the equation), Columbus ran into the Americas. He'd never have made it to India with the ships and supplies he had on hand.

It took another thirty years for Magellan to accomplish what Columbus set out to do (and Magellan didn't make it home alive).

After predicting the existence of radium, it took four years of arduous, dangerous work for Pierre and Marie Curie to isolate one-tenth of a gram of radium from a ton of pitchblende. Marie later died from radiation poisoning and her lab notes from the period are sealed inside lead boxes.

Nobody climbs a Mt. Everest like that doubting she will reach the top. The problem is becoming so converted to a particular outcome that we grow incapable of critical self-examination. It is a very human trait.

Turning to another historical mystery series, the pilot episode of Murdoch Mysteries accurately fictionalizes the efforts of Harold Brown to discredit the alternating current power transmission system developed by George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla.

With the backing of Thomas Edison (who was marketing a competing direct current system), Brown electrocuted dogs in public to demonstrate the dangers of AC. Brown later took these demonstration a gruesome step further, constructing an electric chair to execute a condemned criminal.

The execution went so badly that Westinghouse commented, "They would have done better using an axe." But science be damned, this was a high-stakes economic battle that turned into a religious war, the infamous "War of Currents."

In the end, all the PR stunts in the world couldn't change the fact that Edison's direct current system simply didn't scale. Edison eventually tired of the conflict, quit the electricity generating and transmission business, and left the company that became General Electric.

(Ironically, thanks to modern technology, direct current has since become the preferred long-distance transmission standard, though at the very high voltages Edison railed against.)

Edison had vested interests and investments, and didn't understand polyphase alternating current. He wasn't alone. Tesla was one of the few who did. How might have science advanced in the late 19th century had Edison been willing to form a partnership with Tesla, who was once in his employ?

Edison discovered the vacuum tube in 1880 without fully realizing what he'd invented. It took another quarter century for British physicist John Ambrose Fleming to figure out what was going on and create the first vacuum tube rectifier.

The late-19th century marked the end of an era when innovative tinkerers like Edison and the great British experimentalist Michael Faraday could produce breakthrough inventions with a scant understanding of higher math or physics.

Faraday had intuitively deduced the existence of electromagnetic fields, what he called "lines of force." But he lacked a way to systematically explain his intuition. Unlike Edison, Faraday wasn't above turning to another genius, mathematician James Clerk Maxwell.
Kepler's Platonic solar system.
The result was "Maxwell's equations," the mathematical foundation of the modern world of electricity and electronics.

Empirical science cannot fall back on gut feelings or a reigning consensus. If science were up to a democratic vote, the Sun would still revolve around the Earth. Even as he proved it wrong, Kepler could not bring himself to reject the consensus Platonic model of the universe.

The consensus was not happy with his findings either, despite how much he qualified them. Kepler's conclusions—that orbiting objects move in ellipses, not in neat Platonic circles—did not find widespread acceptance until after his death.

Science is called a "discipline" because it takes a great deal of discipline to question our most deeply-held convictions. The apologist begins every investigation with no doubt that he is right, the true scientist with the sure knowledge that he is very likely wrong.

Related posts

Houdini & Doyle
"Pathological" and real science
The God complex

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May 19, 2016

Houdini & Doyle

Two contemporary Sherlock Holmes adaptations are currently in production. A third installment of the James Bond steampunk interpretation with Robert Downey Jr. may be in the works. Reruns of the definitive Jeremy Brett version can be found on a local PBS station.

And Basil Rathbone, doing a blend of both the traditional and the sort-of mid-20th century contemporary thing, is all over Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu.

So it's not like the world has been clamoring for yet another Holmes and Watson police procedural with-a-twist. Instead, Fox went biographical and came up with Houdini & Doyle (with a fictional addition: Rebecca Liddiard as pioneering policewoman Adelaide Stratton).

That's right. The two men really did know each other. But this is less about Holmes and Watson than it is about that other recently resuscitated Fox crime-fighting duo, Mulder and Scully. Doyle wanted to believe—in the supernatural. His pal Houdini thought it was a big con.

Doyle (6'1") and Houdini (5'6").

The Fox series takes place at the turn of the 20th century in London. Doyle has killed off Sherlock Holmes at Reichenbach Falls (1893) and not yet resurrected him (1901). In the meantime, he's produced a monograph about the Boer War (published in 1900).

Marconi's upcoming 1901/1902 transatlantic radio transmissions are mentioned in the first episode.

To be sure, Houdini's career as a debunker of spiritualists took off in the 1920s, which led to an irreconcilable rift between the two men. That was after Doyle lost his first wife in 1906 and a son in 1918 (WWI). In 1900, his interest would have been more of an abstract curiosity.

Of course, Houdini immediately raises the same objections as have critics ever since. But as Kate points out,

Sherlock Holmes would not have found [his creator's] interest in spiritualism odd. Not a Sherlock of the nineteenth century anyway. Spiritualism—at least initially—was greeted by the scientific community as a possible scientific advance. If humans could create a telegraph that communicated around the world, why couldn't humans create a device that communicated beyond this world? Scientific American offered an award to the first person to prove the existence of the afterlife.

Modernity hasn't changed things all that much. Galileo is a contemporary police procedural similar to Numbers, though featuring a physicist instead of a mathematician. The "supernatural" events in episode 3 have exactly the same cause as in episode 1 of Houdini & Doyle.

And the bystanders in both, a century apart, react pretty much the same too. Observed G.K. Chesterton, "When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything." Like Mulder, we all want to believe.

So Doyle and Houdini started out in pursuit of the same goal. As Kate explains,

From the beginning, Conan Doyle was admittedly more optimistic and Houdini was miles more skeptical, but their mandate, at first, was the same: to uncover hoaxes and find the real thing. They split when Conan Doyle thought they had found the real thing and Houdini continued to maintain that all spiritualists were frauds and hucksters.

Setting the series well before the relationship crumbled allows their characters to approach the subject, as I've noted, in Mulder/Scully terms, with firm convictions but minds fairly open to change. It's a good way to go.

So far, the Doyle/Houdini/Stratton trio works well enough and doesn't unduly disturb the demands of verisimilitude. Stephen Mangan's Arthur Conan Doyle has his beliefs, a family, and a dying wife. Michael Weston's Harry Houdini, in contrast, has doubts and a brash American attitude.

There's not a whole lot of there there. However good he is at the attitude thing, he needs more material to work with, starting with more locked rooms to literally break into.

It appears he's being kept single to make room for a relationship with Rebecca Liddiard's Stratton, which may work as long as it doesn't get soapy. Miller and Liu deserve a lot of credit in Elementary for creating romantic tension without creating any demand for actual romance.

But when it comes to developing a secondary character arc, Martin Freeman's Watson on Sherlock sets the high watermark. He not only becomes more interesting as a person the more we learn about him, but becomes more interesting—and valuable—as Sherlock's partner.

Coincidentally, Michael Weston previously crossed paths with Sherlock Holmes on Elementary as a sociopathic addict trying to drag Sherlock back to his dissolute life. The question is whether they can make him that interesting again without making him that much of a human disaster.

In episode four (season 1) of Murdoch Mysteries, Doyle similarly pairs up with Detective Murdoch. But while Murdoch is an almost stoic empiricist, he is also (like Scully) Catholic, which lends a nuance, depth, and ambiguity to their debates that Houdini & Doyle has yet to achieve.

In story terms, once the convoluted backstories got pushed aside, I've found Miller's Sherlock in Elementary to be closer to canon, Cumberbatch's Sherlock being too Moriarty-centric, more wrapped up in grand conspiracies than cozy mysteries.

Only a puzzling secret in Houdini & Doyle so far, and that's enough. Making faith vs. doubt a weekly theme risks turning the series into a James Randi seminar. Forget the old artsy cliché of "taking chances." Shows like this more often need the courage to rely on the "simple and believable."

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May 12, 2016

The Adams Method

John Quincy Adams has been in the news recently. In Japan.

Well, not the sixth president of the United States specifically, but the apportionment method he devised back in 1822. Ever wonder how congressional representatives get divvied up? Well, it's proportional to population, but the actual process can get complicated, a subject for lovers of word problems in algebra.

The Mathematical Association of American explains the different methods and provides the applicable equations.

The underlying math problem is that, using only whole numbers (the population of a state), the end product has to be a whole and fixed number (the total number of representatives). The wrong formula can result in an "apportionment paradox," that has a state gaining population but losing representatives.

The United States uses the Huntington-Hill Method. The Webster Method (named after Daniel) was adopted by the Congress in 1842, then replaced by the Hamilton Method (named after Alexander) in 1852. And again in 1901. And again in 1911. Finally, the current Huntington-Hill Method was adopted in 1941.

The Adams Method (アダムズ方式) was never adopted in the United States. But Japan seems to have taken a shine to it, perhaps because of its built-in bias toward small prefectures. The problem right now is that small prefectures are hugely--unconstitutionally, according to Japan's Supreme Court--overweighted.

As the population shifted to the cities, the hard-coded apportionments in the 1947 constitution drifted out of whack. Piecemeal fixes were made without repairing the underlying system. And then a string of elections, most recently the 2010 House of Councillors election, were ruled unconstitutional.

The elections themselves were not invalidated, as that would have caused chaos. Rather, the Supreme Court admonished the Diet to enact a permanent fix to adjust representational disparities between the smallest and largest prefectures to below 2:1.

Like the GOP, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) enjoys substantial support in rural districts and has been dragging its feet. In March, the LDP grudgingly approved the adoption of the Adams Method for distributing House of Representatives seats, with full implementation to come following the 2020 census.

Meanwhile, minority parties (which have the most to gain from increased urban representation) continue to campaign for earlier implementation using the 2010 census.

In the United States, population growth favors conservatives, Utah being a case in point. In 2000, Utah missed out on a 4th congressional district by the number of Mormon missionaries serving out of state. Utah would have benefited from the Adams Method then. By 2010, Utah got its 4th district with room to spare.

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May 05, 2016

The Japanese Trump

Donald Trump is the American Shintaro Ishihara, the main difference being that Ishihara has a higher-brow resume. An award-winning writer, director, and all-around raconteur, Ishihara got into national politics in the 1960s and was governor of Tokyo from 1999 to 2012.

Which proves that intelligence and literary talent are not obstacles to becoming a motor-mouthed blowhard.

Ishihara's monumental ego is only the first of their many shared similarities. He told Playboy in 1990, "If I had remained a movie director, I can assure you that I would have at least become a better one than Akira Kurosawa."

Although attached to far right causes and called "Japan's Le Pen,"
Ishihara, like Trump, is really a "Know Nothing" nativist. Trump's most outrageous remarks about immigrants differ only in geographical terms from those of Shintaro Ishihara.

If you think Trump is a bull in a china shop, in April 2012 Ishihara offered to purchase (out of his own pocket) the contested Senkaku Islands and lit off an utterly unnecessary and dangerous international incident with China.

Recall as well that Ishihara was co-author with Sony chairman Akio Morita of the nationalistic screed, The Japan That Can Say No. Ishihara just wants to make Japan "great again."

Believe it or not, Trump is not nearly as impolitic in his public statements as Ishihara. It's hard to imagine Trump describing women past a certain age as "useless" (though his marital choices suggest so). And unlike Ishihara, Trump has yet to insult the French.

At the time, Ishihara's outrageous declarations never seemed to cost him in the polls. Nevertheless, the political factions he headed steadily lost ground and he left politics in 2014.

It's easy to argue that a more circumspect Ishihara could have become prime minister. But a more circumspect Ishihara would never have attracted such a brilliant spotlight.

The same goes for Donald J. Trump. A subdued Trump would have turned into Michael Bloomberg, get elected mayor of New York, and slowly fade away. Fourteen years Ishihara's junior, at the age of 69, this is Trump's last shot at seizing the brass ring.

The possibility doesn't worry me in the slightest. Unless it's 1861 or 1941 or you're living in Syria right now, spare me visions of the impending Apocalypse. The British burned down the White House and most of Washington in 1814. We got over it.

Among the Republican candidates (and Hillary), Trump's "Prime Directive" approach to foreign policy is the only one that makes sense. Not that much else of what he says makes sense (especially trade policy), but, hey, you take what you can get.

If Trump does get elected president, we're going to see the checks and balances of the American Constitution put into action, which makes it possible for Congress to accomplish a great deal by doing nothing (which it should do more of).

And if he manages to blow up the GOP in the process, all the power to him. Perhaps Trump is just the man to convince the political left as well that a less powerful federal government, and especially a less powerful chief executive, is a good thing.

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April 28, 2016

Japan's San Andreas

The 7.3 magnitude mainshock that struck Kumamoto prefecture on 16 April (Japan time) was preceded by a 6.5 magnitude earthquake and followed by more than 1000 aftershocks. Less a devastating head-on collision than the wheels falling off a truck at 60 MPH and the axles dragging along a road filled with potholes.

Unlike the colossal magnitude 9 quake that devastated the Tohoku region of Northern Japan in 2011, the Kumamoto earthquake did not trigger a tsunami. Occurring in a largely rural part of Japan on the southern island of Kyushu, it has caused only 49 deaths to date. The most severe damage was from landslides.

Not the edge of a cliff, a landslide (courtesy Japan Times).

The earthquake struck along a shallow inland slip fault, specifically the Futagawa-Hinagu fault link, at the western edge of the Japan Median Tectonic Line.

A slip fault vividly illustrated (courtesy Japan Times).

Like the San Andreas, the Japan Median Tectonic Line is clearly visible on topographical maps. It begins its journey off the western coast of Kyushu, heads east-northeast, hugs the northern coast of Shikoku, bisects the Kii Peninsula, doglegs around Mt. Fuji, and plunges back into the ocean fifty miles east of Tokyo.

To the north, the Philippine Sea Plate is colliding with the Pacific Plate and the Okhotsk Plate. Moving at a brisk 48-84 mm/year to the west-northwest, the Pacific Plate rams the southern edge of the Okhotsk Plate and the northern edge of the Philippine Sea Plate, crumpling the bedrock of central Japan into the Japan Alps.

The collision between the Philippine Sea Plate and the Pacific Plate forms the Ogasawara Islands, that start at the Izu Peninsula and include Iwo Jima at its southern end. The Izu Peninsula sits at the feet of Mt. Fuji and is home to Hakone National Park and its countless hot springs—a mere 50 miles south of Tokyo.

Sitting on top of the convergence of four massive tectonic plates, perhaps the most amazing thing about Tokyo is that it continues to exist at all.

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April 21, 2016

She and Her Cat—Everything Flows

She and Her Cat is a rough short by Makoto Shinkai that can be found on the Voices of a Distant Star DVD. She and Her Cat—Everything Flows is directed by Kyoto Animation veteran Kazuya Sakamoto, who does an excellent job capturing Shinkai's sense of mood and atmosphere.

She and Her Cat—Everything Flows consists of four eight-minute episodes that tell a complete story. If you know how long cats live, and that we meet Daru (the cat) when she is in elementary school, the story of a life. Except it doesn't quite end like that.

But, well, it does.

As I've noted previously, mono no a'wa're is Shinkai's specialty, referring to the classical Japanese aesthetic concept of the sublime found in the ephemeral nature of things, of the beauty found in loss. Or as Jung phrased it, "In the shadow is the gold."

Kazuya Sakamoto tells a surprisingly upbeat story about what is too often a tediously downbeat subject. Death and estrangement haunt these scant thirty minutes without being mentioned. But so do rebirth and reunion. (A cat as the narrative point-of-view doesn't hurt either.)

A'wa're isn't about gloom or nihilism. It's the simple recognition that nothing lasts forever. Meaning the bad things in life don't last forever either. Cats have nine lives, after all, which makes them at least as long-lived as humans. The things that are no longer here aren't really gone.

They've simply come around again in a different form, including a cat like Daru.

She and Her Cat—Everything Flows can be viewed in its entirety on Crunchyroll.

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April 14, 2016


There's a lot to be said for the simplicity of Japanese grammar: no gender, no determiners, and no plurals. Well, aside from all the exceptions. And even the exceptions are pretty straightforward. But when it comes to counters and the dizzying array of honorifics, not so much.

Honorifics may be linguistic leftovers from feudal times, but they are very much alive in the Japanese language today. Awareness of social rank is the glue that holds Japanese society together, and these ubiquitous noun suffixes are a key way of identifying the status of the person in question.

Honorifics fall along a sociolinguistic arc from abstract class markers to literal professional titles. Keep in mind that when referring to a person with a higher status, the title becomes a pronoun. Imagine a press conference where the reporters started with "Mr. President" and never said "you."

That's perfectly grammatical in Japanese. After first mention, dropping the subject from a sentence is perfectly grammatical too.

Thanks to the spread of popular culture, people outside Japan are familiar with -san and -sensei. Equally common inside Japan are honorifics like -senshi ("player") for athletes and -anaunsaa ("announcer") for newsreaders and MCs.

To be sure, an "honorific" doesn't always honor the person it's attached to. As the "innocent until proven guilty" thing never really caught on in Japan, a person arrested by the police can look forward to having the press attach -yougisha ("suspect") to his name until his case is adjudicated.

However neutral -yougisha was intended to be, in the public mind it now means "guilty as hell" (a good example of the "euphemism treadmill").

With the Japanese press covering the U.S. election season with great gusto, and the participants providing a lot of fodder for the mills of mass media, we're also hearing a good deal about Trump-shi.

This particular honorific (氏) is applied to candidates for public office.

The Asahi explains "The Donald" (including his hair).

It also identifies individuals who deserve a status higher than a mere -san but whose social rank isn't clear given the available context. This makes it a common substitution for -san in literary titles. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, is usually translated as "Jekyll-hakushi and Hyde-shi."

This flexibility makes it easy to swap in background information on the fly. Ben Carson is an M.D. (-sensei or -hakushi) but a -shi when running for office. Cruz, Rubio, and Sanders are generally labeled as -shi in screen captions and -jouin'giin ("senator") in reportorial commentary.

And when a claim to fame is in the past? Bill Gates-shi is a former CEO (which, in Japanese, is "CEO"), plus the "former" prefix (moto-) makes him "Bill Gates 元CEO." Or for the more recent past, the zen (前) prefix. Bill Clinton is a moto-president while his wife is the zen-secretary of state.

To the dismay of the Republican establishment, Trump-shi shows no signs of becoming a zen-candidate anytime soon. And even more worrisome, he could actually become Trump-daitouryou.

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April 07, 2016

Major league politics

"Mini-Super Tuesday" GOP results (Mainichi News).
On a slow news day (sans an earthquake or explosion somewhere), two "international" topics have been getting equal coverage on NHK news programs this spring: U.S. presidential politics and Japanese players in Major League Baseball.

And after every big primary, the former gets even more attention.

Whatever the United States does is hugely important to Japan's national interests. Along with the sprawling navy base at Yokosuka, a whopping 20 percent of Okinawa's land mass is taken up by U.S. military bases (too much, frankly).

But considering the local political geography, Japan knows that good fences (enforced by U.S. military muscle) make good neighbors. The Okinawans certainly don't like it, but the Japanese government won't be chanting, "Yankee, go home!" anytime soon.

There's also the sheer weirdness value. This is a case of "American exceptionalism" that is literally that.

Almost all democracies on the planet are governed by some sort of parliamentary system that effectively does away with these sorts of at-large elections and political free-for-alls (imagine if the president were elected by Congress).

And yet I'm struck by how different the commentary isn't. Japanese news coverage proves that that the mass media echo chamber knows no boundaries. Whether inside-the-beltway or inside-the-Yamanote, the mindset is remarkably the same.

"If it bleeds, it leads" is universal, and the nightly news in Tokyo could convince you that Japan is as violent a place as Detroit. Except that what you are seeing are reports distilled from a population of 130 million and condensed into a single broadcast.

It's as if every news bureau on the planet has a crime and mayhem and Donald J. Trump quota to fill every evening.

NHK likes illustrating stories about Trump with the least flattering stock photos on file. To be sure, Trump's inexplicable Japan-bashing is a tired relic from the 1980s. But NHK also plays up Trump's anti-immigration rhetoric as if it were shocking to the senses.

Unmentioned is that (outliers like North Korea aside) Japan has the toughest immigration policies on the planet. Trump should boast that he's going to make America great again by implementing Japan's existing immigration laws, word for word.

On the other hand, another unshakable truth about Japanese propriety is that, however unlikable, a notable public figure still gets an honorific if his status warrants it. So along with all the other candidates, it's Trump-shi. More about what that means next week.

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March 31, 2016

William Henry Harrison

The ninth president of the United States was William Henry Harrison. He died on April 4. I know this thanks to a big billboard on State Street that I've been driving by for the past couple of months.

Brett Hein/Standard-Examiner.

Curiosity got the best of me and and I looked up the URL. As the Ogden Standard Examiner explains,

Visitors to 9thpresident.com find the methodology of the four-phase study, which, simply put, randomly surveys people asking them to name the ninth President of the United States at different intervals of time after the billboards were placed. As a control, survey participants are also asked to name the Utah Lieutenant Governor (Spencer J. Cox).

In short, the site is part of a marketing study for Reagan Outdoor Advertising. A pretty ingenious one. Frankly, a better experiment than most published studies in the social sciences these days.

The problem is, I remembered a billboard about William Henry Harrison because the whole history thing intrigued me. Off the top of my head, I couldn't tell you the content of any other billboard on State Street. You have to be interested in what the ad is selling to be sold on the ad.

On this point, Rush Limbaugh is exactly right when he insists that he doesn't tell his listeners what to do think. Rather, he articulates what they already believe or want to believe (an effort  harder to sustain than most people imagine). Hence the popularity of both Sanders and Trump.

But now that I've got your attention, William Henry Harrison was the last U.S. president born a British subject and the first president to die in office, from pneumonia. Having served only 32 days, his term remains the shortest in the history of the Republic.

Alas, Harrison wouldn't be around to appreciate his contribution to constitutional law. But his death resulted in the "Tyler Precedent," named after his vice-president. Over a century later, the process of presidential succession was finally codified in the 25th Amendment.

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