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 absolute 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 hypothesizing 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 had 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.

No conspiracies in Houdini & Doyle yet (and hopefully never), but making faith vs. doubt a weekly theme risks turning the series into a James Randi seminar. Forget that 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 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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March 24, 2016

The Big Windup!

I apologize for casting ill-informed aspersions, but when it comes to pastimes, football, baseball, and golf (and sumo) are more watchable ways of passing time than basketball, soccer, and hockey. The latter three are hampered by the wearying back and forth and back and forth that makes tennis boring too.

It's too stupidly easy to score in basketball, too stupidly difficult in soccer and hockey (soccer and hockey are what happen when human beings attempt to illustrate Brownian Motion).

What sets football, baseball, golf (and sumo) apart is the pacing. The punctuation. The pauses. The paragraph breaks. Winning depends on more than fine-tuned twitch responses, which, while demonstrating impressive physical prowess, make for a lousy narrative structure.

Granted, I rarely watch any sports event all the way through. Not even the Super Bowl (unless there's nothing else better on). But I will watch a sports movie all the way through. Especially a decent baseball movie.

The structure of baseball, the strategy of the game, the timing and pacing, allow it to become the drama itself. This is hardly news in Hollywood: The Natural, The Bad New Bears, The Sandlot, Bull Durham, The Rookie, and For Love of the Game, to start with.

And it's no less true of the sports drama in Japan, where baseball constitutes its own wide-ranging subgenre. And it is certainly applies to The Big Windup! based on the award-winning manga by Asa Higuchi.

As with many baseball stories, The Big Windup! concentrates on the "battery," the combination of the pitcher and catcher. It's a setup that brings to mind Bull Durham, with Tim Robbins as the cocky young pitcher and Kevin Costner as the veteran catcher showing him the ropes.

Except that Higuchi starts this game with a screwball, giving us a protagonist who's an emotional basketcase. Ren Mihashi, the starting pitcher, is well-nigh pathologically insecure. Imagine the Tim Robbins character instead played by Woody Allen. Seriously.

As it turns out, Ren has no pitching speed but does have exquisite control, a skill that's gone unappreciated. Catcher Takaya Abe is certain he can use it to great effect--if he can keep Ren from dissolving into an angst-ridden puddle before getting to the mound.

Yes, this could become monumentally annoying, but Higuchi knows better than to deliver the same pitch over and over. Having established a character trait, he doesn't pound it into the ground. Because this is, first and foremost, a sports melodrama.

The opening episodes consist of putting the team together, tossing in a couple of dumb teenage jokes, establishing the school as the underdogs (an all-freshman team), gearing up to face the overwhelming favorites in the regionals of the Summer Koshien tournament.

After that, it's all baseball, baseball, baseball. In fact, the entire first season consists of two games--that go on longer than would the actual games.

The Yankees should hire her.
The only comparable example I can think of is For Love of the Game, which documents a single game in near real-time. In that case, though, Kevin Costner fills its 137 minutes doing a lot of ruminating about things that have nothing to do with baseball.

The players in The Big Windup! think about nothing but baseball.

Now, I have a hard time believing that professional athletes think that much while they're playing the game, let alone high school freshmen. And yet this deconstruction of the sport at practically the atomic level works for a non-sports nut like me.

If you want to comprehend the egghead appeal of baseball, The Big Windup! is the perfect tutorial.

To be sure, this focused attention isn't monomaniacal. There are cute extraneous touches, like the baseball moms huddled together in the stands. And despite her ridiculous proportions, part-time manager Momoe is never depicted as anything but an excellent baseball tactician.

Even the quirky cheerleading culture in Japanese baseball gets its due (it's pretty much that way in real life too, only louder and more annoying).

Along the way, The Big Windup also clarifies the substance of dramatic conflict. There's more to a plot than how the tale ends. According to Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt, "stories are not spoiled by spoilers." Knowing the ending can enhance enjoyment of a story.

So it could be that once you know how it turns out, it's cognitively easier--you're more comfortable processing the information--and can focus on a deeper understanding of the story.

As somebody who has only a glancing interest in who wins most sports contests (spoiler: Nishiura High wins), I can confirm that the difference between an interesting Super Bowl and a boring Super Bowl (the majority, it seems of late) has nothing to do with who wins.

It's all about how the game is played.

Related links

The Big Windup [Hulu Netflix]
The national Japanese pastime
Play ball!

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March 17, 2016

The national Japanese pastime

It's March, and that means it's time for--no, not basketball--the National High School Baseball Invitational Tournament, also known as Spring Koshien. Together with Summer Koshien, the bigger open tournament in August, it is the sporting event in Japan, a cultural (and television) institution.

Courtesy Japan Times.

The last twenty years of economic malaise took a lot of the air out of golf, though Japanese golf players have become competitive internationally. Soccer has recently rocketed past baseball in terms of sheer popularity. Sumo has the historical deepest roots (albeit now being dominated by Mongolians).

But baseball has truly become a Japan's "national pastime," occupying the same cultural and social space as football does in the U.S. (and particularly in states like Texas).

Baseball came to Japan in the mid-19th century with the opening of Japan and caught on quickly. Babe Ruth toured Japan with the American League All Stars in 1934. The first national high school championships were played in 1915, and moved to Hanshin Koshien Stadium in 1924.

The Koshien baseball tournaments equal the popularity of NCAA "March Madness" and the football bowl games. The summer tournament is open to every high school baseball team in the country, so at the beginning of every season, every baseball-loving Japanese kid can dream of going to Koshien.

And with American baseball teams using Japan as a kind of super-minor league system, every baseball-loving Japanese kid can dream of playing in the Majors as well.

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March 10, 2016

Play ball!

Hollywood cranks out a big sports movie every year or two, Kevin Costner and Dennis Quaid starring in about half of them. But sports is less commonly the primary focus of U.S. television series, Friday Night Lights being an exception that proves the rule.

In Japan, though, the sports drama is a hugely popular manga and anime genre (often adapted to live action). And no athletic endeavor or game gets left out.

From Captain Tsubasa (soccer) to Yawara! (judo) to Hikaru no Go (go) to Kuroko's Basketball to Free! (swimming) to Ashita no Joe (boxing) to Haikyu!! (volleyball) to Prince of Tennis to Princess Nine (baseball) to Over Drive (bicycling) and Initial D (street racing), and even Chihayafuru (the poetry-based card game of karuta).

We're barely grazing the surface. The My Anime List website dug up over 500 titles in anime alone. These series are certainly products of their times, both reflecting and arousing interest in their area of interest. As a case in point, each broadcast episode of Yawara! included a countdown to the Barcelona Olympics

Ashita no Joe debuted in 1968 and defined the boxing drama in the public imagination eight years before Rocky. In 1981, Captain Tsubasa presaged the huge popularity of soccer today. Basketball is interesting, in that Japan remains noncompetitive at the professional level outside Japan. But Kuroko's Basketball (2008) is a massive hit.

"Even if it's just for a moment,
I'm gonna burn so bright it'll dazzle everyone.
And all that'll be left is pure white ash."

If real sports don't strike your fancy, there's always Angelic Layer, a futuristic version of Rock'em Sock'em Robots. And Eureka 7, in which jet-powered hoverboarders save the planet. Bizarrely enough, Girls und Panzer somehow manages to turn armored war games into a high school extracurricular activity.

And yet no sport can match the enduring popularity of baseball. The roots of baseball's appeal in Japan go deeper than the simple cinematic appeal. Even more than home-grown sports like judo and sumo, baseball is woven into the fabric of modern Japanese society. The reason is high school. More about this next week.

Related links

Chihayafuru [CR]
Eureka 7 [Netflix]
Free! [Hulu CR]
Girls und Panzer [Hulu]
Hikaru no Go [Netflix Hulu]
Haikyu!! [Hulu CR]
Initial D [Netflix]
Kuroko's Basketball [CR]
Princess Nine [CR]
Yawara! [Netflix]

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March 03, 2016


I have a fondness for movies about the end of days like, well, End of Days. The world doesn't necessarily have to end. But the devil does have to shown up to get his due. Call the genre "Miltonesque" because, as they say, Milton gave the devil all the good lines in Paradise Lost.

These are often the smartest movies about religion, even when dancing right up to (and over) the edge of camp. It's one thing to posit "evil" as a mindless Manichean force like gravity or radiation. But if the devil is going to argue his case on screen and in person, he's going to have to make sense.

Pointing to performances by Ray Wise in Reaper, Peter Stormare in Constantine, and Al Pacino in The Devil's Advocate, I argue that what makes them such compelling devils is that "they're bad with reasons, motivations, and no apologies."

Much in the same way that the structure of the police procedural disciplines the storytelling, tackling the big philosophical questions in an accessible, story-driven manner disciplines the dialectic. And now to the above list we can add Welsh actor Tom Ellis as Lucifer Morningstar. Yes, that Lucifer.

The devil, you see, is on a sabbatical from hell, and has camped out at a posh nightclub in Los Angeles. There he meets Detective Chloe Decker (Lauren German), who is investigating the murder of one of his patrons. It doesn't take long for Lucifer to conclude that solving crimes is a simply brilliant way to pass the time here on Earth.

So now we have the eschatological police procedural.

Meanwhile, Mazikeen (Lesley-Ann Brandt), Lucifer's demonic chief-of-staff, and Amenadiel (D.B. Woodside), a bounty-hunting angel, form an uneasy partnership in order to get Lucifer back in Hell where he belongs. Lucifer is in no mood to comply, despite discovering that he's slowly becoming mortal, an alarming fact he treats with fascinated delight.

Lucifer hearkens back to Angel (before Whedon cluttered up the cast and the storylines) and the Spike-centric episodes of Buffy. It's also the theme of Hellsing. Alucard (that's Dracula spelled backwards) joins forces with Van Helsing largely because modern evil is so boring.

It should come as no surprise that Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, and Mike Dringenberg have creation and writing credits, from the characters they developed for the DC Comics series The Sandman. Gaiman knows his British apologists (C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, to start with), or maybe he just breathed it all in growing up.

The penultimate scene in the first episode has Lucifer getting his partner shot because he doesn't want her to kill the bad guy. This echoes the conclusion of Screwtape Letters, in which death is seen by the tormenting demons as a defeat for the devil.

As far as Gaiman's Lucifer is concerned, death is a cop-out. He wants the wicked to suffer. He wants the punishment to fit the crime in the most exacting terms imaginable. After all, he explains, he doesn't perch on your shoulder exhorting you to sin. That's all the work of human free will, not him.

And yet he gets all the blame. Well, then, the sinners deserve all the punishment.

The devil as the supreme legalist also hews nicely with Mormon theology, according to which God and the Devil differ not so much in ends as means. The real question is not salvation, but the cost to the soul. And the question on Lucifer's mind is the cost to his own.

Being that this is L.A. and no preacher will get anywhere near him, hopefully the answer will come from his shrink (Rachael Harris). With some backroom coaching from Amenadiel, the result in episode 6 is a counseling session worthy of the King Follet Discourse.

When he's not debating whether the unexamined life is worth living as an actual human being, Tom Ellis plays Lucifer as Ferris Bueller on his day off from Hades. The lovable rouge, the bad boy constantly surprising himself by doing the right thing.

He and Lauren German cook up the kind of chemistry we see between Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu on Elementary, where the sparks can fly without the risk of veering into rom-com territory. When she calmly parries his seductive entreaties the first time they meet, he leans in and peevishly asks, "Did my father send you?"

There's a whole lot of theology packed into that question.

Woodside and Brandt's uneasy relationship mirrors that of the leads. They dominate the screen whenever they take over a scene. In particular, Woodside's commanding presence versus Ellis's devil-may-care attitude is a great illustration of opposites that are different sides of the same coin.

Lucifer is currently scheduled for a 13 episode run on Fox. At this point, the "morality" arc seems to be working its way towards an inexorable conclusion. While I expect Lucifer to get his wings back and not end up a literal fallen angel, I couldn't spell out how this is going to happen or what might come after that.

Even if nothing comes after that, Lucifer will still make a great one-and done, sporting a metaphysical heft too rarely seen in a prime time genre series.

Related posts

Christianity is cool
Devil of a role
Lucifer (Fox) (Hulu)

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February 25, 2016

Lawyering up

As I discussed last week, prison life in Japan is harsher but sentences are (often much) shorter than for comparable crimes in the U.S. In Japan through the Looking Glass, Alan MacFarlane points out that, compared to the United States, prison sentences

are lighter in every category of crime, except for homicide. Suspended sentences are meted out extensively, as are small fines. Less than two percent of all those convicted of a crime ever serve a jail sentence as compared with more than 45 percent in the U.S.

The crime rate in Japan is a fraction of what it is in the U.S. But the police have more latitude when it comes to due process. Too much latitude. His .44 Magnum aside, Dirty Harry would be right at home. Detaining a suspect for weeks without access to a lawyer makes extracting a confession the easy way to "solve" a case.

Japan also has a fraction of the number of lawyers as the U.S. Observe that in Hero, criminal defendants almost never have a lawyer present during interrogations, despite ostensibly having the right. On the rare occasions that a defense lawyer does show up, it's cause for great consternation.

Lots of order, not much law, and hardly ever an actual trial.

Few complain because the Japanese are generally loath to involve the courts even for civil matters. So on the one hand, doctors pay almost nothing in malpractice premiums. On the other, an incompetent quack is less likely to get sued, and if money changes hands, rarely the sums common in U.S. malpractice suits.

This creates enough uncertainty in the system that patients in dire circumstances will bribe doctors to guarantee getting the proper care by the proper people (a scene not uncommon in Japanese medical melodramas). Oh, excuse me, that's not a bribe; it's a "gift" (orei).

Though to be fair, a decade ago, the UCLA Medical School received a generous "gift" after performing a liver transplant for a yakuza boss. The exception rather than the rule. Dick Cheney really did wait his turn. (So few transplants are performed in Japan that a bribe would have done the yakuza boss no good at home.)

A decade ago efforts were made to increase the number of practicing lawyers in Japan, in part to counter the powerful National Police Agency, after several prominent cases were overturned because of coerced confessions. Those efforts succeeded about as well as government schemes to increase the birth rate.

Most Japanese simply don't want to become lawyers.

But the Justice Ministry was able to enact a jury system in which "one's peers" essentially act as lay judges, in addition to the traditional panel of judges (usually three). An obvious intent was the threat of jury nullification.

Lay judges comprise the majority of the judicial panel. They do not form a jury separate from the judges, like in a common law system, but participate in the trial as inquisitorial judges in accordance with the civil law legal tradition, who actively analyze and investigate evidences presented from the defense and prosecution.

This strikes me as the more logical approach. The U.S. jury trial system makes for great melodrama, but it's hard to imagine a more inefficient and less effective system for dispensing justice. Not to mention being subject to all sorts of manipulation, hence the whole dubious industry of jury selection.

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