July 31, 2014

Poseidon of the East (30)

I've posted chapter 30 of Poseidon of the East.

One way to read Atsuyu is as a politician who rose high riding the tide of public opinion and thought he was on top of the world when the wave disappeared out from under him.

From the early days of the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese government was challenged by a series of attempted coups carried out but by high-minded idealists and ideologues who always pledged ultimate fidelity to the emperor. Although put down in short order, these insurrections proved popular in the public imagination and had the effect of pushing the government further and further to the right in an effort to outflank public sentiment.

The high-water mark was undoubtedly the attack on Pearl Harbor, which was welcomed with great acclaim. The Japanese public thought it was the final act of a hot war with the east and a cold war with the west that had stretched on for a decade. It was in fact only the beginning of an unimaginably bloody end.

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July 28, 2014

Exploring Europa

A fascinating presentation from NASA TV.

Though nobody at NASA is supposed to say so, this is an excellent argument for why manned space flight is an (almost) total waste of money. Russia charges $70 million a head for its ISS taxi service. NASA could finance a Europa mission for the cost of shipping a couple of astronauts to the ISS.

For the price of the ISS itself, NASA could have sent 100 Volkswagen-sized Curiosity rovers to Mars. All of the truly useful people at NASA work at JPL.

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July 24, 2014

Poseidon of the East (29)

I've posted chapter 29 of Poseidon of the East.

This chapter was perhaps inspired by Toyotomi Hideyoshi's campaign against the Mori clan in 1582. Under the direction of his chief strategist, Kuroda Kanbei, Hideyoshi's troops diverted the Ashimori River to flood Takamatsu Castle, the Mori's stronghold. The military term is mizuzeme (水攻め) or "attacking with water."

When Oda Nobunaga was assassinated by Akechi Mitsuhide in the midst of the battle, Hideyoshi quickly accepted the surrender of the Mori on generous terms (well, other than the castle lord, Shimizu Muneharu, having to commit seppuku) and stole a march on Mitsuhide, eventually defeating him at the Battle of Yamazaki.

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July 21, 2014

Of soccer and spoilers

Let's look at sports from a literary angle.

Perhaps the differences between the preferences of the average American sports fan (who cares about soccer every four years) and the rest of the world (who can't live without it) can be analogized to how people respond to the twists and turns of narrative plot.

More specifically, does knowing what's going to happen matter? Or put another way, do you read spoilers or studiously avoid them?

In Wired magazine, Jonah Lehrer sums up research by Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt at U.C. San Diego. Testing the enjoyability of a range of short stories with and without spoilers appended, they concluded that "spoilers don't spoil anything."

Almost every single story, regardless of genre, was more pleasurable when prefaced with a spoiler. This suggests that I read fiction the right way, beginning with the end and working backwards. I like the story more because the suspense is contained.

As I argued before, it is the predictability in the strategic play of American sports--the sports fan knows what to expect, when and how--that makes them popular, while the inability to anticipate even a definitive ending in soccer is at the core of its appeal.

Soccer is a story where "anything can happen," including nothing. Soccer as postmodern theater: instead of Waiting for Godot we're "Waiting for a Goal." The genre in genre fiction, by contrast, is its own spoiler, where "the same only different" is a virtue.

Or put another way--to switch metaphors in the middle of the stream--American football (done well) is like a classical symphony while soccer (done well) is like jazz improvisation. And like soccer, I'm afraid I respect jazz a lot more than I actually enjoy it.

And I happily read spoilers.

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July 17, 2014

Poseidon of the East (28)

I've posted chapter 28 of Poseidon of the East.

The "poetry recital" mentioned on page 219 specifically refers to renga (連歌) or linked verse. Following a set of established themes and rules, the participating poets would create a longer work (often 36 lines long) by extemporaneously composing alternating stanzas.

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July 14, 2014

Devil of a role

I noted in my review of R.I.P.D. the lazy tendency to equate "ugly" and "evil." Though in the "realistic" world of crime drama, the opposite is true. Watching Law & Order, you could be forgiven for concluding that every crime in New York City was committed by a well-coiffed Manhattanite.

And yet the stereotype stubbornly persists in the F&SF realms. One of the nice things about Frozen was having the handsome young prince be the villain. Space opera especially seems fixated on humanity's struggles with grotesque alien creatures. (That "hive mind" thing is getting old too.)

This does open the door to B-grade actioners like Species and Lifeforce that play against type by casting a fashion model as the alien villainess and giving her many opportunities to take off her clothes. Though these movies could also be read as Victorian allegories about the dangers of sex.

Darth Vader was most interesting when he was cool and wanted to "end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy." Then the whole thing degraded into a mud wrestling match, reducing the moral stakes in Star Wars to white hat/black hat terms that make old westerns look sophisticated.

Compare, for example, these two quite different depictions of the devil by Ray Wise in Reaper and Peter Stormare in Constantine. Ray Wise's performance in particular is a perfect illustration of C.S. Lewis's observation that

The greatest evil . . . is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.

Peter Stormare only shows up in the last ten minutes of the movie, yet appears fully realized as Constantine's thus-far invisible antagonist (though not, in fact, his real enemy).

And then there's Al Pacino playing the devil, who ever since Milton made him the biggest anti-hero in literature (with all the best lines to boot), has no doubt been dying to be played by Al Pacino. Again opposite Keanu Reeves in The Devil's Advocate.

The creepy in these scenes comes from their characters, not from the special effects department and certainly not from their appearances. Granted, we're back in rich white dude territory (so they must be bad). But at least they're bad with reasons, motivations, concrete goals, and no apologies

Jagi Lamplighter points to the equally galling trend in "literary fiction fantasy" of making bad guys not really bad but misunderstood (unless they're rich white dudes). I give the silly Independence Day a wide pass because it insists that, naw, these aliens are just plain nasty.

I mean, they go around destroying all kinds of stuff without filing an Environmental Impact Statement first. The gall!

Related posts

The Big Bad

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July 10, 2014

Poseidon of the East (27)

I've posted chapter 27 of Poseidon of the East.

At the end of the chapter, Atsuyu spells out one of the stark economic realities of medieval warfare that often goes missing in historical fantasies: "I didn't want to take farmers off their land and press weapons in their hands."

An army marches on its stomach. That food has to come from somewhere and pillaging only goes so far. This connection is made clear in Japanese historical dramas, as the size and strength of a domain was measured in koku (石), equivalent to five bushels of rice.

Shoguns punished disobedient warlords by reducing the size of their provinces, measured according to the the crop yield in koku.

An army breaking free of its supply lines and living off the land, as in Sherman's March to the Sea, would only guarantee mutually assured destruction in a country like Japan with so little arable land.

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July 07, 2014


Sometimes a by-the-numbers bubble-gum flick can be too derivative even for me. R.I.P.D. ("Rest in Peace Department") had all the right ingredients for a satisfying serving of the same-only-different fast food but didn't contain a speck of anything actually different.

The beginning is a total rip-off of Men in Black. The ending is a total rip-off of Avengers. The middle is half a rip-off of Constantine (and a reminder of how good Keanue Reeves is in parts like that) and half a rip-off of the far funnier and more imaginative Reaper.

Considering all the obvious MIB references, they should have pulled out all the stops. The genre could certainly use a Spaceballs-style parody. But the script could never commits to that course. Or any other.

Jeff Bridges tries to be a country-western version of Tommy Lee Jones in MIB and now and then succeeds by devouring all the scenery. Ryan Reynolds as his sidekick is so hopelessly generic that you could swap him out for any 30-something male television lead and never notice.

It doesn't help that Kevin Bacon isn't the slightest bit scary as the bad guy demon. Given the lame material he has to work with, that's mostly not his fault. This movie relies entirely on the "evil is ugly" equation. Despite wearing globs of latex, Kevin Bacon doesn't look very ugly.

I'm also getting quite tired of superheros and supervillains systematically trashing every metropolitan area on the planet (this week: Boston). It all looks like stock footage by now. (Man of Steel bored me silly for exactly this reason.)

Nevertheless, I might have managed to overlook many of these failings were it not for the egregious narrative errors, starting with a first scene plucked from the middle of the movie and then snapping back to the actual beginning.

I hate, hate, hate that device. Even worse, the script then proceeded to spell everything out like an Ikea instruction manual. So much for mystery. So much for wonder.

Before he got so full of his own style, M. Night Shyamalan did it right in The Sixth Sense, giving nothing away before he had to. I figured out the big plot twist early on. Still, I hugely appreciated it not being spelled out and handed to me on a silver platter.

A lot of otherwise watchable B-grade actioners are ruined by this incessant need to explain every bit of backstory like the job history on a resume.

Cut 90 percent of the special effects, give Jeff Bridges more than the scenery to chew on, and R.I.P.D. might have added up to a fun, even filling, flick. Alas, it's one of those coulda-woulda-shoulda movies that doesn't deliver on anything but a big, boring special effects budget.

Which reminds me, Constantine is coming to NBC this fall as a drama series, with Welsh actor Matt Ryan as John Constantine (though politically correctness hilariously dictates that his character can't smoke). How different will it be from Reaper and Supernatural?

I loved the movie, so I'm looking forward to finding out. I just hope they hire writers (editors or consultants) who know enough about Christian eschatology to suspend my disbelief.

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July 03, 2014

Poseidon of the East (26)

I've posted chapter 26 of Poseidon of the East.

Atsuyu's comment that "they got here faster than expected" reminds me of the Battle of Shizugatake.

In May 1583, still consolidating his power base after the death of his liege, Oda Nobunaga, Hideyoshi's forts in Shizugatake came under attack by Shibata Katsuie, another of Nobunaga's former generals. Hideyoshi's troops made a four-day march in 36 hours, broke through the besieging armies and cut off their retreat, leaving Katsuie with no defenders. Katsuie's castle fell soon after.

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June 30, 2014

Why Americans like sports

As with most Theories of Everything, this will be an exercise in massive generalizations, gross oversimplifications, and carefree stereotyping.

For example, I'll leave out popular sports like skating and gymnastics (except at the end) where the "score" depends on an ultimately subjective evaluation of an athletic performance.

My next leap of logic is to define the popularity of a sport by the amount of regular weekend coverage on network television. Events periodically covered, like the Olympics, the World Cup, and Grand Slam tennis tournaments, don't count.

That makes limiting the field easy, leaving us with: football, basketball, baseball, golf, and NASCAR.

Two complaints commonly voiced about soccer are low scores and ties. Ties, yes. But football and baseball games can also be low scoring. A baseball game where a single pitcher allows no hits, errors, or runs is described as "perfect."

One of the biggest complaints voiced in turn about American sports is more telling: all that stopping and starting and time-outs that stretch a one-hour football game to three hours.

While I would agree that time-outs get mightily abused in basketball and football (and baseball could use some speeding up), the stopping and starting actually gets to the heart of the matter.

Because the stopping and starting is what makes a sport popular on American television. Specifically, the strategy of stopping and starting.

Yep, that's why the crashes matter in NASCAR too. Not only as a model of evolutionary bottlenecking, but because pitting at the right time--under green or risking waiting for a yellow--can make the difference at the end of the race.

All sports make you wonder what will happen next. The most popular American sports invite the viewer to anticipate the strategies each team will take next, and then watch to see if those predictions pay off when play resumes.

Thus the sport has to appeal to the armchair quarterbacks and backseat drivers and wannabee coaches and managers, who also demand that their predictions and expectations pay off quickly.

American football is designed to do just that, which has made it the blockbuster of spectator sports in America. As does golf, which commands comparably tiny audiences but is given saturation coverage most summer weekends.

Any paunchy, middle-aged man can imagine what he would do on the golf course if he had a swing like Tiger Woods, because every once in a great while, that paunchy, middle-aged man will hit a golf ball as well as Tiger Woods.

No, not imagine playing. Imagine strategizing: in this situation, that is what I would do. It's what every little kid playing sandlot football does when squats down in the huddle and traces a down-and-out on the palm of his hand.

The time-outs and game breaks give the coaches and players time to plan the next moves, the viewers time to take a breather and wonder, and the commentators time to examine the stats and discuss all the options when play resumes.

I had a World Cup game on last week as background noise (if anybody scores, it'll get replayed). No discussion of on-field strategies ever came up. Because there was nothing to discuss except what was happening right now.

Rather, soccer teams are described as personalities that shape the player interaction and the game as a whole. Nothing can be said about what will or won't happen at minute 1 or minute 89, except that 22 players will be kicking a ball around.

Want to "live in the moment"? Then soccer is for you. The moment is all you've got and it lasts for an hour and a half. As Dan observed in my last post on the subject:

There is a good portion of a game [of soccer] where there is no offense. Rather the players just push the ball forward and then fall back into defense. Why exhaust oneself to score a goal when the odds are so steep against it happening? [As a result], much of what happens in the game is inconsequential and everyone knows it.

I previously compared soccer to basketball, except with goaltending. Other than the obvious comparison to hockey, soccer also like tennis, slowed way down. Once the ball is in play, the action is real-time and mostly reflexive.

It's all about the now, and what the players are going to do right now is impossible to predict.

The offense will either do something brilliant--on the spur of the moment--or the defense will do something stupid--on the spur of the moment. This is what makes soccer a "performance" sport rather than a "strategy" sport.

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
The gymnast not falling off the balance beam, the skater not falling at the end of a jump, can be the difference between winning and losing. But while "not falling" may be a pleasant surprise, it isn't a strategy. It's a desire (or a desperate hope). It's all about the surprise at something unexpected happening.

Of course, in the end, all popular sports are performance sports judged by their highlight reels. But "American" sports (as defined above) are highlight machines designed to produce high-performance moments that negate the mistakes. Don't be the goat!

Soccer is watched for the unanticipated occurrences of its unpredictable performances, where a single bad roll of the dice can decide a championship.

The American football fan watches a game knowing there will probably be a couple of great passes, a couple of great runs, a couple of great interceptions, a couple of big hits, a couple of long kicks, and a couple of touchdowns.

As the clock winds down, the team behind will take bigger and bigger chances with bigger and bigger plays, and some of them will pay off, but as part of an overall strategy.

The soccer fan knows that something will happen. Maybe even a goal! Maybe. Beyond that, who knows? Maybe this time . . . Well, lotteries are hugely popular around the world too, despite the long--and totally random--odds.

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June 26, 2014

Poseidon of the East (25)

I've posted chapter 25 of Poseidon of the East.

As best I can surmise, here are the European equivalents of royalty in the Twelve Kingdoms.

  • 王 (ou) emperor or empress.
  • 公爵 (koushaku) the duke (the Taiho).
  • 公 (kou) a prince of the realm; members of the Sankou: ministers of right, left, and privy seal.
  • 侯 (kou) a province lord or marquis (nine total); may also include the prime minister.
  • 伯 (haku) a count (British earl) or minister.
  • 卿伯 (keihaku) an undersecretary or vice minister.
  • 卿 (kei) a viscount or province minister.
  • 大夫 (daibu) a baron; three subdivisions of baron: upper (上), middle (中), lower (下).
  • 士 (shi) a knight (samurai) or gentleman; three subdivisions of knight: upper (上), middle (中), lower (下).

Atsuyu is referred to as a keihaku (卿伯).

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June 23, 2014

Making soccer worth watching

Every four years when the World Cup rolls around, American Exceptionalism once again rises to the fore as Americans by and large demonstrate their exceptional indifference to the world's most popular team sport.

To be sure, that's becoming less true by the year. Even Salt Lake City has a professional soccer club. And soccer is certainly a good way to get kids to run around outdoors without the risk of bodily injury from playing American football (and the huge cost).

The World Cup rings up respectable ratings in the U.S. simply by being rare enough and weird enough to draw in the curious. Thanks to its sheer excess and pageantry, the Olympics likewise gets millions to watch sporting events we never would otherwise.

Even so, most World Cup matches don't draw enough attention to escape the walled garden of ESPN. Meanwhile, NHK shuffles its schedule to broadcast World Cup matches (which, for licensing reasons, viewers of TV Japan are spared from viewing).

At times like this, I, who do not care that much about sports in general, am happy to care even less about soccer. But in the abstract, I am intrigued.

My international satellite TV package includes One World Sports. It reminds me of ESPN way back in the day when ESPN would carry any obscure athletic activity to fill 24 hours of programming. Stuff like cricket, snooker, badminton, and darts.

Plus lots of soccer.

So channel surfing around, now and then I'll end up watching five minutes here and there. At first, I was impressed by all the skillful passing going on. And then I realized it was mostly going on mid-field. And then I realized that nothing else was happening.

If the ball got anywhere near the goal, the defense simply fell back into the goalie box and turned the game into human bumper pool. Once everybody crowded in there, there was no "strategy," only a lot of randomly lunging and knocking the ball around.

And occasionally even knocking it into the net. A goal in soccer occasions such elation because it is such an unusual occurrence. As The Simpsons so aptly described the sport: "It's all here: fast-kickin', low scorin'. And ties? You bet!"

Then it struck me: soccer is what basketball would look like if goaltending was allowed. There was no shot clock. And the fast break was prohibited.

We'd be talking boring, low scoring games where the offense would somehow have to power through to the basket and slam the ball through the hoop without fouling anybody, or catch the defense so out of position it was incapable of blocking the shot.

Meaning that the most interesting games in soccer, paradoxically, are those when one team completely outclasses its opponent, or neither team has much of a defense (the very definition of a dull contest in football, basketball, or baseball).

But these are problems that can be easily fixed.

Getting rid of the offside rule is only the first step. The dumbest rule in all of sports, it's emblematic of a game absurdly weighted in favor of the defense (second dumbest: the secret time clock).

A physically bigger goal would help (in hockey too), twice as wide and arced (or make the blasted field smaller). That still wouldn't eliminate the bumper pool defense.

Here's what soccer really needs: basketball's 3-second and goaltending rules. In soccer, though, the 3-second rule would apply to the defense. Call it the "onside" rule:

Aside from the goalie, no defensive player shall remain inside the goalie box for more than 3 seconds unless the ball or an offensive player is also inside the goalie box.

Corner kicks would be like free throws. Nobody (except the goalie) could step into the goalie box until the ball was kicked.

These changes would make strategy and tactics a critical part of the equation. That is, setting up and executing specific plays with a high likelihood of producing desired results, rather than devolving into a life-sized illustration of Brownian motion.

During a corner kick, where would the offense position themselves? Would they group together or spread apart? Would the defense cover them man-to-man or attempt zone coverage? The kicker would need to signal where or to whom he would kick the ball.

A player dribbling the ball downfield would similarly need to decide whether to enter the goalie box, drawing the defense along with him, or pass to a teammate behind the defense but not in the goalie box, making possible a one-on-one fast break.

And while I'm at it, I'd allow hitting the ball with the hands, volleyball-style. Because deliberately hitting a fast-moving object with your head is really, really stupid.

Of course, one could counter that at some point, soccer would cease to be soccer. But consider how often the rules of basketball have changed over the past fifty years: the size of the key, the three-point shot, the zone defense, the shot clock, jump shots.

Come to think about it, basketball still favors the offense too much. Goaltending should be permitted if a defensive player jumps from outside the paint. That should make the game more interesting.

Not that I'd be likely to watch in any case (unless I was really bored and there was nothing else on).

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June 19, 2014

Poseidon of the East (24)

I've posted chapter 24 of Poseidon of the East.

This chapter describes a prominent bureaucrat as a "man so busily engaged in pilfering the public treasury he had no interest in plotting political conspiracies or leading insurrections."

And yet, at least in the short term, Shouryuu would rather appoint him a province lord. Making the best of a bad situation, a greedy rich man worries him less than a Machiavellian politician interested primarily in power.

You can "follow the money"; money can be audited, tracked, taxed. Fortunes poorly managed dissipate quickly. If Elizabeth and Darcy's children didn't pinch their pennies, Pemberley would go bankrupt by the end of the century.

We applaud politicians who make "deals." But the fairness of a deal made in the proverbial smoke-filled room, sealed with a handshake during a round of golf, is much harder to ascertain, if we're aware of it at all.

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June 16, 2014

Japanese TV updates

Two live-action Japanese television series I previously discussed (here and here) are now streaming on Crunchyroll.

In No Dropping Out, the fabulous Ryoko Yonekura is a screwed-up overaged high school student attending a screwed-up high school. And in I'm Mita, Your Housekeeper, the creepy Nanako Matsushima takes over a screwed-up middle-class family.

Despite the dark mood starting out, both are essentially ripped-from-the-headlines, problem-of-the-week series with over-the-top plotting that come to (overly) sentimental happy endings.

But they give you a fun, hugely melodramatic ride getting there. Though the sentimentality in No Dropping Out does end up inadvertently turning it instead into a parable about the difficulty of changing hidebound social institutions.

Because no matter how bad the status quo sucks, we're suckers for the devil we know. Like the extremely competent but sociopathic housekeeper you just can bear to let go.

Related posts

The Housekeeper
Ryoko Yonekura

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