April 23, 2015

Japan's (ir)religious wars


Japan's wars over religion have never been all that religious. To be sure, rabble-rousers like Nichiren sowed doctrinal strife no less than did Martin Luther. But the Thirty Years' War didn't follow, in large part because the church in Japan has only rarely not been subservient to the state.

Then there was that whole Aum Shinri Kyo business, but I'll leave the fringe element out of the discussion and focus on the Napoleons. Though there's not much in the way of open theological debate to be found, wars involving religion could get pretty nasty.

In 1571, Oda Nobunaga razed the Buddhist temples on Mt. Hiei, killing upwards of 20,000. At issue was the power of Tendai Buddhist "warrior monks" at Enryaku-ji monastery. They'd aligned themselves with rival warlords and exerted undue influence (Nobunaga believed) over Kyoto politics.

Though home to Tendai Buddhism since 788,
no building on Mt. Hiei dates to before 1571.

The Portuguese first arrived in Japan in 1543, bringing with them guns and Jesuits. Although he openly declared himself an atheist, Nobunaga was fascinated by western culture, quickly learned how to use the musket in large-scale offensives, and gave the Jesuits wide latitude to proselytize.

That latitude ended with his assassination in 1582. His successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, was already suspicious of Christian influence in the fractious western half of the country. The Jesuit Gaspar Coelho made things worse by promising Hideyoshi arms and warships that would never be forthcoming.

When the Hideyoshi realized he was being conned, Coelho threatened a coup. But Hideyoshi at the time commanded one of the largest armies in the world. Although Coelho's petitions for military support were summarily rejected by his superiors, Hideyoshi was convinced he had traitors in his midst.

The Tokugawa shogunate doubled down on Hideyoshi's policies to expunge Catholic influence from the country. As far as the shogunate was concerned, if the Catholics weren't all in with them, they were against them, so against them they were deemed.

In 1637, the Shimabara Rebellion culminated in the siege of Hara Castle. When the castle fell in early 1638, some 37,000 Christian peasants and masterless samurai died or were executed.

After Shimabara, only a small contingent of Protestant Dutch traders was allowed to occupy a tiny island near Nagasaki. Again, though as merciless as the Inquisition in forcing adherents to abandon their beliefs, at issue was the consolidation of power and an isolationist foreign policy, not theology.

These fears of foreign influence were not unfounded. Two centuries later, the Satsuma domain (just south of Nagasaki) armed itself with British weapons and warships and led the revolt that overthrew the shogunate.

Shimabara was also largely a problem of local governance. The governor of Shimabara was subsequently executed for cruelty and incompetence. The message: if the peasants revolt, they'll be executed; if you gave the peasants good reasons to revolt, you'll be executed too.

In the mid-19th century, a final religious conflict arose when the Meiji government switched the state religion from Buddhism to Shinto. For 250 years, the Buddhist temples had grown fat and corrupt under the patronage of the shoguns, who used the temples as tools of control via the census.

Over a period of four years, popular uprisings following the Meiji Restoration in 1868 destroyed tens of thousands of Buddhist temples and works of art (though resulted in few deaths). The haibutsu kishaku was basically a super-condensed, hyper-kinetic version of the English Reformation.

Like Catholicism in 16th-century England, Buddhism was down but not out. During the 1930s and 1940s, Zen Buddhism saw a resurgence (side-by-side with the state-sponsored Shinto-based emperor cult) as the "spiritual backbone of the military army and navies during the war."

But in the late 19th century and ever since 1945, deprived of its power to tax and compel affiliation, Buddhist temples have had to attract parishioners the old-fashioned way: with goods and services. Buddhism now dominates the lucrative funerary business in Japan.

As if by a cosmic gentleman's agreement, Shinto gets the first half of life, including coming-of-age ceremonies, weddings, and the blessing of inanimate objects like dolls, needles, and buildings; Buddhism get the second half. Though both Shinto and Buddhist temples hold doll funerals.

After which they'll be cremated (the dolls, that is).

And, of course, a Christian wedding is fine too (if the Shinto rite doesn't suit your tastes or wallet: renting wedding kimonos for the bride and groom alone can cost several thousand dollars).

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April 20, 2015

I'm old enough


Megan McArdle wonders why parents have become so paranoid of late, freaking out at the sight "children walking down the street alone." Alarmed enough to trigger the equivalent of SWAT deployments to "rescue" kids from . . . nothing, actually.

"Why," McArdle asks, "has America gone lunatic on the subject of unattended children?"

Because the 24-hour news cycle fools us into treating national totals of rare events as the numerator in calculations of risk. Human beings are really bad at statistics, and when the denominator is a third of a billion, we discard it and substitute in Dunbar's number.

Dunbar's number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person.

In other words, the maximum number of people we're honestly capable of giving a damn about, between 100 and 250. Populations larger than that become abstractions. So a single commercial plane crash is a national tragedy while 32,719 (in 2013) auto fatalities earns a shrug.

Stalin summed up the paradox when he observed that "One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic."

Plus a much greater investment in fewer children that boosts their marginal value to infinity. Hence the impulse to lock them away in padded rooms until age thirty or so.

But not necessarily. Although even fewer kids are being born in Japan, they start walking to school by themselves in elementary school. If the school is too far away to walk, they'll have bus and train passes. This is reflected in popular culture, like Non Non Biyori.


It's true that the crime rate is lower in Japan, but the American parents who worry the most live in middle-class suburban communities that have about the same crime rate as Japan.

Crime isn't the real risk anyway. Japanese kids are more likely to get killed in freak traffic accidents (streets outside city centers in Japan often have no sidewalks or shoulders). But with a denominator of 130 million, they're as rare as school shootings in the U.S.

And they trigger calls for better traffic enforcement. And sidewalks. Maybe Japanese are better at math. They don't panic at the sight of small children walking someplace by themselves.

The best (though hardly "empirical") proof of this comes from an NTV reality show, I'm Old Enough (「はじめてのおつかい!」).

In the show, children aged six (and younger) are given a task to accomplish (usually by their mother) and set out on their own. To be sure, there's a camera crew and a producer no more than a couple of feet away, and we don't see the kids who get lost along the way.

I'm sure there's helpful hinting and herding and location scouting going on too. But it's pretty impressive that they're allowed to tackle these tasks at all.

We're talking about walking to the store, picking the right item off the shelf, standing in line, and paying for it. Or taking a train to another stop and walking several blocks to find daddy's office. And then making it back home. By themselves.

The real payoff is the reaction of some of these kids when they realize what they've done. One little girl, upon finding the right item on a supermarket shelf, jumped up and screamed, "Yatta!" We did it! Like she'd just won the gold medal at the Olympics.

That's the pure delight that comes from accomplishing something concrete on your own.

George W. Bush was onto something with that "the soft bigotry of low expectations" line. I don't mean the "tiger mom" stuff, but getting to try (and fail) at the simple things, the increasingly rare privilege of not being treated like a Fabergé egg in everyday life.

Here's an episode from I'm Old Enough. It's pretty self-explanatory (and usually the camera crew does a better job staying out of sight; in recent episodes the cameras are all but invisible).



Related posts

Land of the paranoid
Free-range kids
Free-range kids (1940's edition)
L.M. Montgomery's free-range kids

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April 16, 2015

The three families


In order to avoid the Henry VIII problem--the ruling family running out of male successors--at the birth of the Edo period in 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu created the Sanke ("three families"). If the main line failed, three related families (the Owari House, the Kii House, and the Mito House) could supply the shogun.

The Tokugawa (and founder Matsudaira) clans are still respected as a kind of unofficial royalty in Japan (in Fox & Wolf, Yuki's father is a Matsudaira, which makes him the equivalent of a blue blood).

But not even this much redundancy can survive a fertility rate of 1.4. The Owari House and Mito House are still going concerns, but the Kii House is headed by an unmarried woman who has no children. The Kii House has divested itself of its non-commercial holdings and will fade away in a few decades.

The Mito House remains well-known for both fictional and historical reasons. First, the crime-fighting adventures (based loosely on the actual person) of its second clan head, Mitsukuni, were turned into the long-running Mito Komon television series.

Mitsukuni (not Colonel Sanders in disguise) holding his "badge" of office:
ne'er-do-wells cower before the insignia of the Tokugawa clan.

Second, during the early 19th century, the "Mito School" of political philosophy (which also traces back to Mitsukuni) tacked far to the right. In reaction to the "Unequal Treaties" opening up Japan, it promulgated a nationalistic, imperialist ideology that was embraced by the Meiji revolutionaries.

Efforts to suppress the Mito School (culminating in the Ansei Purge) triggered a full-blown insurrection and the assassination of Ii Naosuke, who held the equivalent office of prime minister (the purge was his idea). In response, the shogunate adopted several of the reforms demanded by the Mito School.

The last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, was from the Mito House. Being the most sensible shogun in years, he abdicated after a year in office and passed the reins of government to the emperor. As a result, unlike many of his contemporaries, he went on to live a long, largely uneventful life.

Related posts

The culture of adoption
The downside of adult adoption

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April 13, 2015

The magic of the mundane


Blogger John Hansen came up with a great antidote to the demand for "realism" in young adult literature: story pitches that are "very realistic." They double as examples of "high-concept" plots (turned into haiku by Twitter's 140 character limit), although the irony renders these decidedly "low-concept."

You can browse the whole Twitter list at #VeryRealisticYA. It's perversely entertaining.

Girl can't decide between two boys. The boys realize the girl is shallow and become best buds.

Teenage girl meets 300 year old vampire. They have a hard time connecting because he's 285 years older than she is.

Teen doesn't sacrifice safety, family and normalcy to go to extremes against her government for some random scrub she just met.

Girl leaves home to save the planet. Parents file a missing persons report, police find her, bring her home. She's grounded.

Teens suspect crime has occurred. They inform parents and police and go back to being teens.

Girl thinks her life is over after her high school crush dumps her. She grows up. Can't remember his name ten years later.

High school doesn't have a strict popularity system, just various groups of friends that somewhat overlap.

Girl overhears CEO's sinister plot to rule the world. Turns out her startup's founder is just really full of himself.

The survival of the world depends on girl learning to control her powers. Girl can't. Everyone dies.

Actually, that last one has been written: Madoka Magica, which turns on the inability of teenage girls to understand or properly use the superpowers they've been given. It's the recognition of this mundane truth of human nature that elevates it above most in the "magical girl" genre.

Spoiler: everybody dies but Homura.

Which brings me to the importance of the ordinary in fantasy. Fantasy is fantastic only compared to ordinariness. Without it, fantasy gets lost in superlatives. That's why Batman is more intriguing than Superman. A too super superhero becomes his own Deus ex Machina.

It gets to the point where the only scary thing supervillains can do in Hollywood blockbusters is destroy large-scale infrastructure. Well, so can earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes. Natural disasters are not entertaining (except in PBS documentaries).

Man of Steel shares the same problem with Thor: The Dark World and every other superhero flick that ends with the piecemeal destruction of a major metropolitan area: they're boring. (Avengers succeeds thanks to Robert Downey Jr. and by being genuinely funny.)

Kate points out the necessity of characters like Spike (from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) who are mostly content with their plebeian tastes and plebeian goals. They don't want to destroy the world or conquer the universe. They just want to get on with life and enjoy themselves.

Fantasy needs to be grounded in characters who live in the here and now, who avoid world-shaking existential crises. There is, in fact, a whole genre in Japanese fantasy about otherwise normal people with a single unique characteristic that hardly anybody notices.

In Kamichu! the heroine is a minor Shinto deity. Everything else about her life in a fishing village on the Inland Sea is (almost) completely normal. Rather than "Stop the presses! Inform the world!" she's treated more like "Local girl makes good."

Someday's Dreamers is about social workers who happen to be witches. They work in a government agency like any government agency that social workers work for. Except, you know, they're witches.

This is the low key approach I wish Angel would have taken: a noir detective series about a P.I. who happens to be a vampire. Instead, the whole vampire meme came to dominate everything, thereby exhausting most of the decent story possibilities.

Luke contemplating the Tatooine sunset and worlds beyond.

A little normalcy goes a long way, not only in slice-of-life stories but in the big heroic journeys too. A key to what made the first Star Wars movie so good are the mundane motivations at the heart of the story: Luke wants to get off that hick planet and Han wants to earn a few bucks.

The Buffy model, in which the teenage heroine wants to keep being a "normal" teenager, has become de rigueur in YA fantasy. But unfortunately, as in Buffy and Angel, so is the constant resort to dystopian futures and apocalyptic plots.

That's what makes iZombie a refreshing change. Like Buffy, our heroine deals with everyday life and the challenge of being "normal" when she is anything but. As a champion of justice, she is decidedly small-scale, her superpowers not terrifically super, and difficult to handle.

Blaine turns over a new leaf . . . for about five minutes.

Upon becoming one himself, the low-life who accidentally turned her into a zombie, the very Spikey Blaine, contemplates his navel for about five minutes. And then leverages his old skills--dealing drugs--into a brand new one: the culinary brain wholesaling business.

He's still a sociopath, but a surprisingly entrepreneurial one, and that's infinitely more interesting than trashing Manhattan.

As far as that goes, instead of destroying Manhattan, I'd tell Loki to ditch Asgard and run for mayor of New York. You know, like Mayor Wilkins of Sunnydale on top of the Hell Mouth. A much bigger challenge and a way better night life.

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April 09, 2015

The downside of adult adoption


The long-standing practice in Japan of mukoyoshi ("adult adoption") solves the kind of succession problems that bedeviled kings like Henry VIII. But for the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), it caused hefty problems for the adoptees.

Hideyoshi rose to power after the assassination of Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582). Despite a marriage of thirty years and having mistresses ensconced in castles hither and yon, he never produced any offspring. That is, until he took Cha-cha (Lady Yodo) as his mistress (at the time, legal paternity was up to the head of household).

As Oda Nobunaga's niece, Lady Yodo had an impeccable bloodline and so could bear him a son worthy of being appointed shogun, a post denied Hideyoshi because of his commoner roots. Which she did. Twice.

Even at the time, people wondered aloud about this "miracle." Unfortunately for them, Hideyoshi had turned into a cross between batty King Lear and paranoid Richard III. He launched two disastrous invasions of Korea and ordered the death of a highly-revered adviser, Sen no Rikyu (perhaps because Rikyu's renown eclipsed his).

Questions about the paternity of his sons were quickly quashed when Hideyoshi had the rumormongers executed (that's one way to address a potential PR problem).

Hideyoshi's first son died young (superstition attributed his fate to bad karma from Sen no Rikyu's death). The second, Hideyori, was designated his successor. But what to do with his adopted sons, that might also vie for leadership of the clan? Well, charges of treason were trumped up and they were sentenced to death.

Hideyoshi surely hadn't forgotten how easily he had routed Nobunaga's diffident sons and worried that the same thing would happen to his own.

And, well, it did. After his death, the regents appointed by Hideyoshi split into East and West factions. In short order, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the leader of the East faction, annihilated the West at the Battle of Sekigahara and had himself appointed shogun instead.

The travails of the Toyotomi clan in producing an heir additionally motivated Ieyasu to create the Sanke ("three families"). If the main line failed, the male descendents of his three youngest sons were qualified to become shogun. A royal family with understudies.

The selection of the shogun itself was a political process overseen by a council of elders. Ieyasu's genius was in seeing national governance in political terms and not simply as primogeniture and will-to-power. Shoguns often abdicated and most weren't appointed until after they'd reached adulthood, and sometimes much older.

Related posts

The culture of adoption
The three families

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April 06, 2015

The Peter Principle of interface design


The Peter Principle--that in any organizational hierarchy, every employee eventually gets promoted to the level of his incompetence--isn't only a management problem. In a world that expects "new and improved" on a yearly basis, the temptation is to keep tweaking a design until it fails.

The 1995 Taurus was the epitome of a conservative family sedan, that still doesn't look out of place 20 years later. But then came 1996 and Ford turned it into a squashed jellybean. "All the aesthetics of a beanbag chair," says Cars.com.

A car and a half-melted gumdrop.

This is an increasing problem with consumer PC products because there are fewer and fewer reasons to upgrade software or hardware.

Loaded with 96 MB of RAM, my old Windows 95 machine was a snappy and reliable platform for most routine Microsoft Office 95 chores. But the Pentium 100 could barely run Winamp (it couldn't run Media Player without stuttering), and I'd maxed out the 4 GB hard drive (in two partitions because of FAT16).

My 10-year-old Windows XP Thinkpad is mostly fast enough, the 2 GB of RAM an only occasionally bottleneck. Though the on-board video card can't handle streaming HD video, SD is fine on a 1024 × 768 screen. I've got a tad more free space than the capacity of old hard drive. Still, 4 GB isn't much these days.

But I can wait until Windows 10 comes out.

The only reason to upgrade from Office 2003 is buying a new computer, and Microsoft OSes since Windows 8 don't support 2003. I appreciate that Office 2013 can edit and save PDF files, though I can do that now with my ancient version of Acrobat 6.

Upgrading will be nice but not necessary. And it'll be a big pain in the neck because I'll have to upgrade most of my software.

Microsoft is betting its future on customers like me, and designed Windows 10 to appeal to us XP and 7 diehards. Even with Windows 8.1, Microsoft was quick to assure its user base that, "No, no, we haven't killed the desktop! It's still there! Promise!"

Windows 8 "improved" the interface in ways that nobody had asked for, hardly anybody wanted, and the tech press scorned. And yet now every other tech website sports big blocky boxes in bright primary colors surrounded by acres of wasted screen space, while giving barely a thought to actual usability.

At least the Google News page can be customized in a utilitarian, information-rich format. And Craigslist gives you lots of useful text in a few rudimentary columns. No fancy-dancy anything. Good for them.

The genesis of this rant was that Netflix has again "improved" its interface to the point of being useless. In the past, you could switch from the "video store" display, with its slow, space-hogging images, to a "spreadsheet" master list that was fast, flexible, and sortable.


Not only is the spreadsheet gone but so is the master list. Now to scan through the anime titles (the only category I'm really interested in), you have to sort the ten sub-genre lists separately. Netflix couldn't have made itself less user-friendly if it tried.

Or maybe they are trying. Netflix tried to get out of the physical media business before (turning the DVD business into a wholly-owned subsidiary), and I don't think they ever gave up on the effort. I can take a hint.

Netflix used to have the best anime selection anywhere. Its DVD backlist is still very good. When it comes to the new stuff, though, Netflix doesn't try to compete with Hulu and Crunchyroll. (This may change with its upcoming entry into the Japanese market.)

Given the first-sale doctrine, once the infrastructure costs had been sunk, each additional DVD could be warehoused for pennies. Mailing them cost the bucks. With physical media going extinct, long-tail streaming video aggregators had to allocate their licensing and broadband budgets more strategically.

Netflix has clearly focused on capturing cable and network offerings in the fat part of the Pareto curve (this graphic published 3/14). Except I'm not interested in subscribing to a glorified cable channel.

Cable TV for people who already have cable TV.

For the time being, Netflix is my Redbox substitute, good for the occasional Hollywood flick and TV series and the rare new anime DVD title from GKids. Otherwise, when the DVDs run out (though at two/month, it'll be a while), I can see a Roku in my future but not a Netflix subscription.

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April 02, 2015

"Massan" wrapup


Massan concluded its six-month run on March 27 (new series begin in April and October). This was the first Asadora ("morning drama") featuring a non-Japanese actor in the lead role, newcomer Charlotte Kate Fox (Northern Illinois University, MFA Acting).


To recap, Massan is a fictionalized biography of two real people: Scotswoman Jessie "Rita" Cowan (1896-1961) and Masataka Taketsuru (1894-1979), the "father" of Japan's distilled spirits industry. "Massan" was Cowen's nickname for her husband.

For Fox, this wasn't only an extreme case of "method acting," but of real-time language acquisition. Like Fox, her character arrived in Japan knowing no Japanese. Unlike Fox, she spent the rest of her life in what was a near "total immersion" environment.

But over the past six months (closer to ten months of actual shooting), Fox has memorized--spoken and reacted to--over 40 hours of Japanese dialogue. And the results?

She did very well! By the end of the series (during which time her character has aged forty years) her Japanese had improved markedly. In interviews, she laughs at how bad her Japanese was the first few weeks. But, of course, that was the point!

It probably helps that Fox has a good ear and a fine singing voice. She's released an EP in Japan with the full versions of the folk songs she sang on the show. I hope they invite her back for NHK's gala Red and White Song Competition on New Year's Eve.

She'll next be appearing on Broadway in Chicago. I'd like to hear her belt out a show-stopper.

Fox also reminds me that, yes, there is such a thing as acting talent. I don't mean simply being able to emote on cue, but being able to naturally interact with people (you didn't know from Adam a week ago) as if you and they were those characters.

(I contrast this with the "Meryl Streep school": never let the audience forget that you are a famous actor acting! Watching Moneyball, I had to remind myself: Oh, yeah, he's Brad Pitt. And then I forgot who he was again. That's good acting.)

Well, I am often impressed by NHK's ability to cast new talent in big roles, and to nurture young talent through its "farm system."

The new heroine meets the old protagonists
(Tao Tsuchiya's third Asadora, first time as the lead).

Starting on Sunday/Monday, the Asadora returned to form with Ma're, a contemporary YA dramedy. Also according to form, the first week features the pre-teen version of the heroine. These little kids blow my socks off, they're that good.

This is one of those real-world cases (probably more the rule than the exception) where the person who got the "lucky break" deserved it.

Tao Tsuchiya with her younger self (Ramu Matsumoto)
and her cinematic parents (Yo Oizumi, Takako Tokiwa).

Thanks to her father's spendthrift ways, the family ends up broke in the sticks, where the titular character overcomes one obstacle after another as she strives to become a patissier.

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March 30, 2015

Curated a la carte


I puzzle mightily at the extent to which Netflix segregates its streaming and DVD catalogs. If you're a DVD subscriber, there's no way to find out what's in the streaming catalog. Not using the Netflix website, that is.

On Hulu and Crunchyroll, the options are front and center: "Subscribe to watch premium content right now!" Amazon provides all the options available for every title in its catalog. Want to stream it? Want the DVD? Want the book? Click here!

But Netflix treats this information like a state secret.

Back in 2011, Netflix announced that it was splitting itself in two, turning the mail-order and streaming video businesses into separate and distinct corporate entities. In the face of a customer revolt, it quickly reversed that decision.

According to the abandoned plans, the streaming business would retain the name "Netflix." Since that's where they clearly saw things heading, why not entice the Luddites to join them? Why not dangle all those sparkly gems in front of our eyes?

A few possibilities spring to mind:

  • Netflix still intends to separate the businesses: it spent zero dollars in 2014 marketing its (profitable) DVD business;
  • It had already hewn the databases apart and is not about to glue them back together;
  • Netflix would rather its customers not think about what's in its catalog.

I'm serious about the last one. Nobody would design a website this crappy by accident. So "How to get the most out of your Netflix subscription" articles once pointed you to third-party websites, until Netflix killed off that option too.

(Well, not nobody. A common complaint about Barnes & Noble is that for any relatively obscure title, you're better off searching on Amazon even you plan to buy it at B&N.)

As Alex Hern points out, "The paradox of Netflix's transformation from a DVD rental company to a streaming video firm is that as its star has risen, the selection has got worse." Don't look behind the curtain: there's a lot less there there.

Netflix clearly wants to be HBO much more than it wants to be super-Hulu. HBO will give you a programming schedule a month at a time, but won't tell you what's in its backlist. Because that's the way television broadcasters work.

The broadcaster broadcasts and the audience consumes what's being broadcast. HBO subscribers overpay for a handful of original series, recent releases, and access to a backlist that's like randomly punching buttons on a Redbox machine.

Based on cash flow, it's working brilliantly for HBO. (Skinner observed among his lab rats that random rewards elicited the most vociferous responses. See also: slot machines.)

And it seems to be working for Netflix too. Justin Fox at Bloomberg confirms that "Today's Netflix has a lot more in common with existing TV channels, most obviously HBO . . . its success doesn't have much to do with the [back catalog]."

With true on-demand video, there isn't any "programming," because the "programming" is whatever the consumer says it is. That was the promise of streaming. But streaming isn't going to kill television programming, after all.

There's a lot of blather about "curation" in art these days, how much better off we'd be if people with better taste than you and me decided what's best. The "tidal wave of rubbish" being inflicted upon us by self-publishing, for example.

Granted, when bandwidth is finite, curation is called for, even necessary. A museum has only so much wall and floor space. A physical bookstore can stock only so many titles. A theater can book only so many productions in a given year.

Once upon a time, the Internet and the "long tail" were going to obviate that need. But apparently not right away. And not for all people and all markets. Sometimes people really just want to watch "whatever's on."

The reliance on trend-setters and taste-makers is summed up in the Japanese word (working its way into English vernacular) omakase ("I'll leave things up to you"). I admit it: I pay attention to starred items and good reviews too.

But for those of us with (once) fringe taste in (once) fringe media trends, leaving it all up to somebody else meant getting nothing we wanted. Manga and anime first flowed east across the Pacific thanks to IP pirates, not "curators."

Though back in the day, the IP pirates themselves were, by necessity, curators. You could pack only so many VHS tapes into your luggage.

For now, our entertainment options are in a tug-of-war between the a la carte world and the omakase world. Netflix started out as the former and ended up the latter. I suspect we're heading for a "curated a la carte" future.

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March 26, 2015

The culture of adoption


I previously noted Kiku Day's critique of Lost in Translation (2003), in which the "good Japan" is "Buddhist monks chanting, ancient temples and flower arrangement," while modern Japanese are depicted as "ridiculous people who have lost contact with their own culture."

In fact, Japanese are as nostalgic about the Edo period (1603-1868) as we are about the Wild West, on the one hand, and the Georgian period, on the other. As with cowboys and English aristocrats, popular depictions of the Edo period typically revolve around samurai (who were both law enforcers and aristocrats) and upper class merchants.

The peasants end up being pretty much part of the scenery. But during the Edo period, Japan minded its own business, fared reasonable well economically, and produced a quite literate and educated society. What's not to (selectively) like?

Women also fared well compared to their European counterparts. They weren't any more "liberated" and primogeniture still ruled. But a samurai's daughter would be the equal of the Bennet sisters in most respects (the cinematic heroines of Edo period dramas owe a lot to Elizabeth Bennet). In many ways, probate law was more flexible.

A Japanese Mr. Bennet wouldn't worry about the disposition of his estate. Of course, if one of his daughters had the opportunity to marry way up, he would encourage her. But then he would find another suitor who occupied a (slightly) lower social cast (but with money) and adopt his son-in-law-to-be into the family, making him a legal Bennet.

These mukoyoshi ("adult adoptions") were also a good way for a family with a lot of sons to keep them from fighting over the estate.

Paternal lines have been maintained this way for centuries. These days, though, the more pressing cause is a fertility rate of 1.4. Especially at family-owned businesses, mukoyoshi is not only a socially acceptable way to keep the family name alive and well, but to select an heir perhaps more suited to the job than what nature supplied.

Which means that, sometimes, the child can indeed choose his parents. And the parents can do genetic engineering in reverse (using a professional matchmaking service, though it's always better to "promote" from within the company).

Related posts

The downside of adult adoption
The three families
Techno-orientalism

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March 23, 2015

iZombie


I have no interest in the whole zombie thing. Not in Night of the Living Dead or the numerous copycats. Not in The Walking Dead. Zero. (Well, I did like the Mythbusters "Zombie" episode.) In any event, I mostly eschew the horror genre except where there's a strong eschatological element.

So I wasn't planning on watching iZombie, the latest paranormal police procedural from The CW. But it happened to be on and I happened to have nothing else to do. Zero expectations.


And you know what? It's really good! I mean, hands down, the best new series of the year. (I wanted to like Backstrom, but the pilot was so clumsily executed that I haven't gone back for another look. Maybe it's gotten better.)

Rose McIver (previously Tinker Bell, of all characters) is an ER doctor infected with a "zombie" drug (conspiracies are at play, but we've wisely been told nothing about them so far). She transfers to the morgue, where she can blend in better with the non-living dead and eat the occasional brains.

The thing is, this brain-eating (don't worry, it's too comically aware of its inherent goofiness to be gross), occasionally gives her flashes of the victim's last memories, and sometimes temporarily imbues her with their personalities too.

Down in the morgue, Rahul Kohli plays her intrigued colleague (he keeps his London accent while McIver sheds her Auckland roots), who covers for her "eccentricities" while searching for a cure. That he would do this out of sheer scientific curiosity is totally believable.

Malcolm Goodwin takes up the Agent Booth role, utilizing her insights to catch the perpetrators. Her excuse is that she's a psychic; he doesn't care as long as they solve cases.

Rounding out the cast, her family and ex-fiance fret about her constantly, staging the occasional "intervention": they think she's going through a "goth" stage because of lingering PTSD from her traumatic exposure to the "drug" (explained in the media as a bad batch of recreational drugs).

Like I said, I smell an X-Files style conspiracy in the works, but as long as they keep the stories episodic and the conspiracies in the background, I'll go along for the ride.

The series originated as a comic book series and uses comic panels effectively at the start of each segment.

The pilot episode gets the mood just right: dark, to be sure, but never somber; silly when it's supposed to be without getting stupid; and it even works in some upbeat character development without turning saccharine. A bit of Quincy, a bit of Bones, a bit of Angel (including a Spike look-alike).

In my book, that's the right recipe to make a show worth watching. (You can see the first episode here.)

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March 19, 2015

Patema Inverted


The "concept as plot" approach to storytelling works well enough if the story being told is kept short and simple. Because a concept, no matter how complex and compelling, isn't a plot.

Yet some ideas are so neat that you can fool an audience into treating them as if they were.

To a point. As Abraham Lincoln famously said, "You cannot fool all the people all the time."

That pretty much describes the arc of M. Night Shyamalan's career. He made getting fooled a heap of good spooky fun The Sixth Sense. But it went to his head and his movies got increasingly repetitive and self-important. Then the feeling was, "Fool me twice, shame on me."

The Matrix elevated "high-concept" to a half-billion dollar franchise by letting the audience in on the secret at the start. We do love a shared secret. But after dipping into the same conceptual well three times in a row, the water started to taste brackish.

Patema Inverted sets forth with one neat idea, and it's good for a hundred minutes of screen time (and not much more). There are enough loose ends at the end to justify a sequel, but a sequel would demand an actual plot. A concept is a told joke. We got it already.

Patema is the heroine, and the "inverted" (sakasama) means exactly that. In this quasi-dystopian future, there is an "above ground" tribe and a "below ground" tribe. Gravity works the opposite for each tribe.

The story about how this happened is covered in the first thirty seconds and then forgotten (until the end), which is a smart way to do it. When you're building on "concept" alone, don't belabor it. The more people think about it, the more holes they'll find.

There are enough holes in Patema Inverted to make a sieve (to start with, how the economy actually works), but out of sight, out of mind.

Otherwise, the one (annoying) flaw in the movie is that the "above ground" world is one of those by-the-numbers Orwellian societies ruled by one of those by-the-numbers cartoon villains, spouting off in religious terms without a religious context anywhere in sight.

(Shutting down inquiry by declaring curiosity a sin works in Scrapped Princess because it's couched in the framework of a powerful and pervasive medieval religious organization. There's none of that here.)

As a general rule, if you have to toss a dramatic foil into the mix in order to create actual conflict, there isn't any actual conflict. But if you do, make sure it's Hugo Weaving.

The backstory, brief as it is, suggests a better approach. The "dictator" should have been the last descendant of the scientists who caused the problem in the first place, desperate to hide the enormity of their error. Yes, scientists make mistakes and they have egos too.

Thus his interest in Patema's tribe: still trying to figure out what went wrong without revealing to anybody what they did wrong.

That aside, Patema Inverted is a fast-paced, fairly family-friendly (though not for acrophobes) exploration of a surprisingly deep philosophical idea. Director and writer Yasuhiro Yoshiura's clever use of perspective literally asks: "Which way is really up?"

In this case, as in so many, the answer all depends on where you happen to be standing.


If you don't mind the constant commercial interruptions, Hulu has the dub version.

A big shout-out to GKids, the U.S. distributor, which now also manages Studio Ghibli's back catalog. That includes the young-adult melodramas Ocean Waves and Only Yesterday, never before released in the U.S. (But still no date on the DVDs or streaming.)

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March 16, 2015

Walk on water


When I was growing up, the space race competed with underwater sea adventures for gorgeous photo spreads in National Geographic (which nobody read for the articles). Jacques Cousteau was as big a star as the astronauts and took prettier pictures.

As with Stanley Kubrick's space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey, everybody knew that we were going to be living in cities at the bottom of the ocean any day now (because, you know, population).

As useless as the ISS (and more dangerous) but at least cheaper.

Alas, by the time we made it to the Moon, real space exploration had grown ho-hum (sans white-knuckle disasters like Apollo 13). Living in space turns out to be pretty inconvenient. And mostly good for making cool YouTube videos.

The same goes for living under water. Somewhere along the evolutionary path, we homo sapiens got rid of gills, and good riddance.

But as it turns out, millions of people are living at the bottom of the ocean. The trick, you see, is first to raise the bottom of the ocean to sea level. That makes it a lot easier.

Over the past century, almost one hundred square miles of Tokyo Bay have been "reclaimed." I lived for a year in a housing project on reclaimed land in Osaka Bay, also home to Kansai International Airport, built entirely on a man-made island.


In Japan, it's actually more economically, politically, and environmentally efficient to carve up a mountain and dump it into the ocean than to move in the opposite direction, or push all urban development everywhere down to the water's edge.

The Tohoku earthquake has taken land reclamation in a whole new level. It's been four years since. The rubble has been removed, leaving behind empty fields and vacant lots where towns once stood. The question is how to prevent the "next time."

On 11 March 2011, 250 miles of coastline shifted up to eight feet eastward and dropped over two feet. Most harbor seawalls failed. Entire fishing villages were washed away. Fukushima Daiichi was swamped, its backup generators destroyed.

It soon became obvious that building sea walls able to defend against any possible tsunami was a fool's errand. And if built, the high walls would turn the place into a prison (which remains a problem even with the sea walls that are being built).

As a result, two basic approaches are being taken: 1) relocating retail and residential communities further inland; 2) a combination of sea walls and raising the ground level (click to enlarge).

Moving inland and higher up (courtesy Japan Guide).

Following the earthquake, parts of many coastal towns ended up underwater at high tide (and people complain about their mortgages being "underwater"). A good part of what was Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, will rise forty feet above sea level.

Another way to stand on higher ground (courtesy Japan Guide).

This once quaint fishing village now looks like a science fiction movie set: a forest of massive conveyor belts moving 20,000 cubic meters of soil a day. If you're looking for "shovel-ready projects," the shovels don't get any bigger than this.

Elaine Kurtenbach describes the government-industry complex that has been churning along now for half a century:

Pouring concrete for public works is a staple strategy for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its backers in big business and construction, and local officials tend to go along with such plans.

Rikuzentakata won't be going to the mountain; the mountain is coming to Rikuzentakata. Literally.

Making the mountains low (courtesy Japan Guide).

The Book of Isaiah sums up the process very well:

Every valley shall be raised up,
     every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
     the rugged places a plain.

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March 12, 2015

Now, Our Two Paths


Asahi Productions (Studio Shiroishi in Miyagi) has released an anime short about the rebuilding efforts in Miyagi Prefecture, hard-hit by the 11 March 2011 Tohoku earthquake. It's in Japanese but otherwise easy enough to understand.


(View the larger screen version here.)

Ima, Futari no Michi ("Now, Our Two Paths") begins a decade or so ago with Jun and Kunpei discussing their futures (Jun becoming a doctor, Kunpei a fisherman), and then gives us snapshots of their lives over the four year since March 2011.


The dates at the bottom right are the year (Heisei notation) followed by the numerical month or season (winter: 冬 spring: 春 summer: 夏 fall: 秋 New Year's: 元旦). Heisei 23 is 2011 (subtract 12 to get the Gregorian year).


The spring of 2011 finds Jun back in Miyagi, completing her residency at a clinic near her home town. Kunpei is a farmer. The buildings at the 2:20 mark are prefabricated housing units, still home to 77,000 (out of 230,000 total displaced persons).


A more in-depth description here. From a critical perspective, I'm impressed at how much story can be condensed into five minutes (it is very much a story of moments).

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March 09, 2015

The price of harmony


My sister Kate recently mentioned some reading she'd been doing for a course in interpersonal communications she's teaching. This particular text [The Culture Map by Erin Meyer] roughly separates corporate cultures into the categories of "low" and "high" context.

The U.S. has a "low context" culture. Contemporary American culture has been distilled over the centuries from a varied immigrant population that do not share a common background, so things have to be spelled out. The fewer assumptions made the better.

Japan has a "high context" culture. They've shared the same operating manual for the past two millennia. If you don't share it, then you're expected to pretend until you do. But rather than "high" and "low," let's call it "go along to get along" versus "I'm from Missouri."

The value of "go along to get along" is that since cooperation is presumed, people do their best to cooperate. Nobody makes waves. Making waves just proves you weren't getting along and you're not a team player. (It probably also means you can't read minds.)

That attitude can leave you stuck when the boss assumes X has been communicated and you have no idea what X is. And his boss may simply be trying to communicate what his boss assumes he understood and is kicking the can down the hierarchical road.

According to novelist Kaoru Takamura (she began her career at a foreign trading company):

In an organization where the authority-responsibility structure is unclear, employees are unable to make their own decisions and must constantly refer to their superiors. But because these superiors are also unclear about their own authority, they can't make responsible decisions. Problems just get shuffled around and everyone ends up working longer hours.

It comes down to the ratio of actual work to CYA. The consensus-seeking, conflict-avoiding style of Japanese business easily becomes a way of avoiding blame. If you've got to cover your superior's ass, you're going to make sure your own ass is covered too.

So where the brash American might shrug and wing it, the cautious Japanese is going to hunker down and play it safe.

The hallowed business practices of ringi (the bottom-up circulation of new proposals) and nemawashi (the politicking that accompanies it) do produce a sense of collective responsibility and wa (harmony).

But they also obviate personal responsibility (the buck stops nowhere) and chew up tons of time and energy. Noah Smith states it bluntly: as a result, white-collar productivity in Japan is horrendous.

Employees sit idly in front of their computers waiting for the boss to leave so they can go home, or make busy-work for themselves, copying electronic records onto paper (yes, this is real!). Unproductive workers are kept on the payrolls because of lifetime employment, with high salaries guaranteed by the system of seniority pay. To this, add endless meetings, each of which must be exhaustively prepared for in advance. Layer upon layer of bureaucracy with poorly defined accountability.

There is a price for everything, and the one for "going along to get along" can be steep. However we love to decry the "adversarial system" in law, politics and commerce, as Churchill said of democracy, it's the worse system we've got . . . except for all the rest.

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