December 17, 2017

Weather Vane (6)


I've posted chapter 6 of "Weather Vane." This chapter concludes the short story collection. Still waiting for news about Fuyumi Ono's upcoming novel.

The occasionally hot "cold war" between Baku Province and the Imperial Government, documented in A Thousand Leagues of Wind, began when Koukan, the province lord of Baku, rejected the claims of the pretender.

Youko allied herself with his men to overthrow the corrupt governor of Wa Province. She later appointed Koukan as Chousai of the Imperial Court.

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December 14, 2017

The strong and the soft of arcs


When it comes to narrative arcs in television dramas, the strong arc requires a soft arc but not necessarily visa-versa.


Most anime series have fairly strong arc storylines. A typical cour runs 13 or so 30-minute episodes, so can be digested in a couple of binge-viewing sessions. Beyond the Boundary ran 11 episodes, at least two episodes too few. Eureka 7 ran a strong arc through 50 episodes, twice as many as needed.


Narrative disasters occur when a dramatic arc expected to last a season or two proves more popular than its creators expected. They then drag out the premise the series began with. The result is that nothing gets resolved and all kinds of nonsensical reasons have to be concocted to keep them from getting resolved.

(On the other hand, Detective Conan has run so long I wonder if anybody remembers the weird premise it began with or expects it to ever get resolved.)

Eventually, the writers run out of things to write about and fall back on melodrama. That's when I stop watching. Nothing is more frustrating than a enjoyable genre series that runs out of material and resorts to characters screwing up their lives with angsty self-involvement and rank stupidity.

I might have watched more than ten cumulative minutes of Friends if Ross and Rachel got hit by an asteroid at the end of the first season so we could focus on Monica and Chandler, whose relationship actually matures. The relationship between Niles and Daphne progressed on Frasier, though took too long getting there.

Big Bang Theory is not only funnier but more entertaining when the characters grow and develop in positive ways, not slip and fall on the same banana peel week after week.

I suspect that soft arcs often harden because the writers worry about running out of story material. Afraid of repeating themselves, they resort to what Kate calls the compulsion to "CHANGE, SHOCK, DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT!" But the result isn't "something different." It's endless reruns of Groundhog Day.

Sure, Groundhog Day is amusing for two hours. Year after interminable year, it would define an inner circle of hell. But as Groundhog Day points out, breaking free of this perdition doesn't involve dramatic gestures so much as it requires steady personal growth, mostly ordinary characters improving on being ordinary.

Working with the full knowledge that there is nothing new under the sun is much more liberating. As Kate points out, Agatha Christie built a successful career out of being obvious and doing the "same old thing" over and again.

What makes Christie so great is the simplicity of her story ideas. Story often comes down to one idea. The telling may be elaborate (red herrings plus more red herrings plus more red herrings), but the ultimate denouement is not complicated at all.

Overextended strong arcs are bad enough. When the Decima Technologies arc derailed the premise of Person of Interest, it mutated from a series into an updated version of the Saturday morning serial. Individual episodes simply served to chop an increasingly implausible plot into digestible pieces.


That's unfortunately what also happened with the Ori arc on Stargate.

Watching the first season of 24 cured me of the desire to watch any of the sequels. At this point, we're in telenovela territory. Most live-action Japanese dramas are compact versions of the telenovela, with a single cour lasting around 10 episodes. Except for the Asadora, I usually give them a pass too.

Ten hours of conflict and angst is bad enough. When it's the exact same conflict and angst (and no resolution) week after week (until the last episode), it's unbearable. (Though a series like I'm Mita, Your Housekeeper can win me over with unique characters, episodic plotting, and a touch of magical realism.)

Or the exact same crime, as in police procedurals that take a single mystery and stretch it out over a dozen hours. No, I am not going to wait that long to find out whodunit, not when Columbo can figure the whole thing out in ninety minutes.

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December 10, 2017

Weather Vane (5)


I've posted chapter 5 of "Weather Vane."

I translate dango (団子) as "donut holes." Dango are dumplings made from rice flower. They are typically roasted over hot coals and served on skewers.


Here is a bumblebee in action.

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December 07, 2017

To be continued . . .


Rewatching the early seasons of The X-Files, I'm impressed how effective it is when doing one-off mysteries. Granted, the big conspiracy stuff is fun because it has that classic noir look (with great supporting actors). But think about it for five seconds and it's awfully silly and ages awfully fast, very much a product of the times.

Stargate has the same issue with the Goa'uld and the Replicators, and I got too bored with the Ori to keep watching. The Stargate producers purposely set up each arc with a Big Bad at the center of the ongoing drama. It's a reliable formula, but one that eventually poisons its own well.

Still, the standalone episodes of Stargate are often flat-out fantastic.

This is a persistent problem with "strong arc" storylines, wherein the setup and resolution of each episode depends on the preceding episode and dictates the substance of the one that follows. I think removing the need to maintain the episodic continuity of the arc can free writers to wax more creative.

The original Star Trek holds up well because there pretty much is no arc, making it easy to ignore the mediocre shows and feast on the great ones. I recent saw "Arena" again, and despite the Gorn captain looking like he'd just walked off the set of a Godzilla movie, boy, does it make for a great short story.

Same with "A Taste of Armageddon" and "Errand of Mercy" and "City on the Edge of Forever." Knowing nothing about the Star Trek universe would not diminish the viewer's ability to grasp the entire point of these stories.

But especially in longer series with relatively stable casts, expectations of some sort of plausible continuity and evolution in the "soft arc" must be met (unless, like The Simpsons, the expectation is established early on that the show will reset after each episode).

Star Trek didn't run long enough to worry about the Starfleet org chart. But Star Trek: TNG took too long to explain what Riker's problem was. As a military history like The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, King makes clear, no serious military man turns down a promotion (he maneuvers for the one he wants).

Giving Riker a sketchy past from the start would have created a more interesting dynamic between him and Picard (I blame Roddenberry's obsession with utopianism).

I agree with Kate that Bones gets it mostly right. Castle wades too far into soap opera territory for my tastes, but then rescues itself by poking fun at its own outrageousness, like having Castle travel to an alternate universe to solve a crime and deal with his personal issues.

Blue Bloods does a good job of changing things as naturally as the screenwriters can manage, which in the early seasons mostly had Danny and Jamie getting new partners and Frank dealing with a new mayor. Amy Carlson left before the start of this season. But each season arc rarely overwhelms the individual episodes.


Jack O'Neill and Samantha Carter get promoted on Stargate and, true to their characters, end up together with a minimum of histrionics. General Hammond retires. Even Michael Shanks leaving the show for a season appears mostly seamless in retrospect. Equipment evolves, weapons evolve, including how Teal'c outfits himself.


Done right, the "small stuff"—big emphasis on "small"—of natural character development can strengthen episodic dramas. Done wrong, it results in eye-rolling soap operas.

Speaking of Michael Shanks, Saving Hope gets it mostly wrong. I like the medical dramas and the supernatural stories that feature Shanks. But the season-long arcs are soapy to the the point of becoming unwatchable. This is even true of House in the later seasons, and it remains one of the best television dramas ever.

Cable series seem to be all about the strong arc, one of many reasons why I don't watch cable television dramas. But anime is all about the strong arc too. More about that next week.

To be continued . . .

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December 03, 2017

Weather Vane (4)


I've posted chapter 4 of "Weather Vane."

After mulling it over for a while, I decided to translate "Fuushin" as "Weather Vane." See my explanation here.

Unlike their cousins the honeybees, the rest of the bumblebee hive does not overwinter with the queen. With no need to stockpile honey, they are not useful as honey producers. However, they are bred for use in agriculture as pollinators.

Although female bumblebees can sting repeatedly, ignore them and they will ignore you.

Of course, bumblebees in our world don't need a yaboku tree to reproduce. As far as that goes, while new plant species come from yaboku trees (as documented in "Blue Orchid"), pollination is a component of sexual reproduction.

This suggests that the flora of the Twelve Kingdoms at least partially follows the biological rules of to our world.

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November 30, 2017

Nipako


In Japan, not even the manufacturer of precision hand tools can resist the allure of a cute mascot. The hand tool in question should be apparent from the shape of Nipako's hair and ribbons (click the image below to enlarge).


If not, let's look more closely at the etymology of her name. In Japanese, the suffix ko (子) functions somewhat similarly to the /y/ in names like "Debby" and "Betty." But the first two syllables in her name are written in katakana, meaning it has a foreign derivation.

One that's more British than American. Still guessing? See below the fold.

Read more »

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November 26, 2017

Weather Vane (3)


I've posted chapter 3 of "Weather Vane."

The depiction of "normal" life in the midst of total war is one of the more interesting aspects of Asadora dramas like Carnation, Toto Nee-chan, Massan, and Ume-chan Sensei. The first episode of Ume-chan Sensei begins with a ordinary scene of the family eating breakfast. And then Umeko runs outside—into an utterly wrecked and charred landscape.


And yet life went on.

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November 23, 2017

The quintessence of the role


English is a Germanic language, but thanks to the Romans, the Vulgate, the Normans, and Latin being the lingua franca of academic scholarship well into the 17th century, Latin left its indelible mark on the language.

One of those truly cool marks is the word quintessential.

It derives from quīnta essentia, meaning the "fifth element" or essence of the heavenly bodies (believed to be "ether"). The other four elements are air, fire, earth, and water. (And now you also know where the title of The Fifth Element came from.)

For the past five centuries or so, quintessential (adj.) and quintessence (n.) have referred to the pure essence of a substance or the perfect embodiment of a thing.

I think it should refer to a school of acting.

The thought occurred after catching several episodes of Kojak (1973–1978) on Cozi TV (also available from Netflix). A recurring theme in Blue Bloods is how bad the "good old days" were. Crime statistics from the past quarter century prove it. Or you can watch Kojak.

Inspired by gritty crime dramas like The French Connection (1971) and Serpico (1973), the grime and nihilism is lightened by Telly Savalas's witty, wry, better-honest-than-nice Lieutenant Theo Kojak. Savalas was doing the cop version of Hugh Laurie's Dr. House thirty years before House.

In the role, Savalas captures the quintessence of the hard-nosed Brooklyn detective. His performance reminds me of Luca Zingaretti's in Inspector Montalbano (not just because they're both bald). Both play to type, a Greek-American and a Sicilian, and play that type over the top.


Zingaretti plainly states that his Montalbano is an exaggeration, a "commedia dell'arte," which is a

theatrical form characterized by improvised dialogue and a cast of colorful stock characters that emerged in northern Italy in the fifteenth century and rapidly gained popularity throughout Europe.

It is exactly this embrace of the inner stock character that allows an actor to "transform and enlarge" the part, that allows the essence of the person represented by the character to shine through. Such a performance creates an emotional rapport with both the cast and the audience.

This is what makes Savalas's and Zingaretti's characters so memorable. They key in on our familiarity with the type (which all fictional characters must be to some extent) and use that familiarity to pull us deeper into the substance of the person they are playing and the story he is telling.

I call this "acting to the quintessence." It deliberately skirts the Stanislavskian approach because theater isn't real life and actors aren't the real people they are portraying. The most "realistic" portrayal on screen is ultimately a made-up story told against an artificial backdrop.

Even a rigorously objective documentary is a shadow on Plato's wall. Once a camera starts rolling, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."

Embracing the type while transcending it is no simple task. Cast as Japanese, Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's delivers a cringe-worthy stereotype, while Marlon Brando in Teahouse of the August Moon convincingly depicts a person utterly unlike himself.

Brando was famously a method actor, except that all the "method" in the world wasn't going to turn him into a Japanese living in post-WWII Okinawa. What he could do was focus on those demonstrable aspects of the character that communicated the essence of his part in the story.

In other words, Brando acted like he was that person, and being a good actor, those actions resonated with the audience.

The job of narrative fiction, regardless of the medium, is not to recreate the real world. It is to draw in rough sketches with a specific and artificial focus, giving our own creative instincts enough material and latitude to fill in the rest. Our minds are the only virtual reality machines that matter.

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November 19, 2017

Weather Vane (2)


I've posted chapter 2 of "Weather Vane."

In traditional Chinese culture, qi (ki in Japanese) is characterized as a vital "life force" that permeates every living thing.

On page 305, Suiga refers to Kakei using the second person pronoun anta, a familiar form of anata. Neither is appropriate when addressing a social superior (even today). I discuss the subject at length here.

An intercalary month is a leap month inserted into a calendar year to make the calendar follow the seasons or moon phases. The Buddhist calendar adds both an intercalary day and month on a regular cycle.

The traditional East Asian lunisolar calendar is divided into 24 "solar terms."

At the end of this chapter, in his example about the rice harvest, Choukou is referring to the 13th solar term (立秋), which begins around August 7 and ends around August 23, and the 14th solar term (処暑), which begins around August 23 and ends around September 7.

Making things more confusing, the eighth month in the Gregorian calendar is the seventh month in the lunisolar calendar. This is why the O-bon festival is held in July or August, depending on whether the region follows the lunisolar or the Gregorian calendar.

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November 16, 2017

The "normal" superhero


Having complained about the eye-rolling superness of too many (if not most) comic book superheroes, I should point out that the protagonists in action-oriented series, from James Bond to John McClane to Indiana Jones to Himura Kenshin, are superheroes in everything but name, only more "normal."

Not to mention police procedurals that are really excuses for action series, like Hawaii Five 0 and NCIS: Los Angeles, or that contain a supernatural element, like Lucifer and iZombie and Supernatural.

Jim Caviezel as John Reese in Person of Interest is a true superhero, especially when paired up with Michael Emerson and his "Machine." This is essentially the premise of Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex, though Ghost takes place in a world where everybody has a "Machine."

Unfortunately, as much as I enjoyed John Nolan as Mr. Greer, in the Decima Technologies arc that dominated the last third of the series, "Samaritan" was little more than yet another comic book supervillain that rehashed all the old Big Bad Mainframe cliches.

By contrast, Enrico Colantoni as Carl Elias is a billion times more interesting. A vulnerable bad guy who can do the right thing is hard to beat.

The best episodes of Person of Interest had them tackling problems that prove more complicated than they first appeared (true of good police procedurals in general), but more complicated because of human complications, not superhuman ones.

I'd love to see a franchise like Spider-Man eschew the supervillains and the city-wrecking apocalyptic plots. Okay, the good guys can do a little pounding, but that still won't solve the problem, not if the goal is a conviction that'll stand up in court.

Actually, Wonder Woman largely did just that, which is what so elevated it above the competition. Okay, Wonder Woman cheats by using World War I as the setting, but at least Diana isn't the one wrecking the cities (aside from the odd belfry).


Alas, based on the previews, Diana will henceforth no longer be an independent woman (with a couple of human sidekicks), but will be chaperoned by a bunch of superguys and frustrated by a bevy of silly supervillains. As if the success of the first movie was a fluke.

Related posts

The Big Bad
Person of Interest
Too super for their own good
Reframing the mainframe plot

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November 12, 2017

Weather Vane (1)


I've posted chapter 1 of "Weather Vane."

The cry of the semi (蝉) or cicada is a quintessential part of summers in Japan. Here is a sampling.


The political and geographical divisions of the Twelve Kingdoms.

国  Kingdom
州  Province
郡  District (comprised of 50,000 households or 4 prefectures)
郷  Prefecture (comprised of 5 counties)
県  County
党  Township
族  Town
里  Hamlet (comprised of 25 households)

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November 09, 2017

Too super for their own good


The big problem with Hollywood comic book superheroes is they're too dang super. All that superness requires that the supervillains to be too dang super too. The combination of the two quickly descends into abject silliness (in terms of the motivations) and massive vandalism (in terms of the consequences).

At least when Godzilla wrecks Tokyo (which he does as less a "villain" than a force of nature, like a typhoon or earthquake), he has to work at it. And you can't help but appreciate all those scale models being crushed underfoot. Somebody actually made them! With glue and paint and balsa wood! Amazing!

Though Godzilla wears out his welcome pretty fast too.

Otherwise, inflicting billions of dollars of CGI property damage on a major metropolitan area simply isn't entertaining. I mean, it really isn't. It's depressing when it isn't dull. The inputs--the millions of dollars and zillions of credits scrolling by at the end of the film--don't come close to equaling the outputs.

In my bubblegum entertainment classroom, getting a passable grade in science fiction and fantasy means the screenwriter has to at least respect the laws of thermodynamics. Okay, he doesn't have to be totally constrained by them. But putting limits on how big, how fast, and how strong forces writers to get creative.


The latest Wonder Woman gets the balance pretty much right, as focused human effort can force her into a literal crouch. I've gained a new appreciation for the old Bill Bixby Hulk series. Even pumped up and painted green, Lou Ferrigno is a real person constrained on screen by 1970s television technology.


Batman and Ironman (supposedly) only rely on technology, but technologies that too often violate the basic laws of motion too. Same problem with giant robots.

Ironman still contributes to large scale urban renewal projects (though mostly because of the people he hangs out with). And Batman still ends up facing off against vaudevillian bad guys with motivations borrowed from the goofier side of the Bond spectrum, except that Christopher Nolan expects us to take them seriously.

Sorry. Can't. No matter how much he underexposes the film (and Nolan actually shoots on film).

Patlabor gets it right too. I usually avoid the mecha genre because of the basic science issues. Patlabor succeeds because 1) it takes a big team to keep one "labor" operational; 2) the batteries run down pretty quickly; 3) they go to great lengths to limit collateral damage; 4) they don't take themselves too seriously.

In other words, Patlabor demonstrates a healthy respect for the laws of thermodynamics. And common sense.


Hey, we're fighting crime with giant robots! How whacked out is that?

One nice point of the original Star Trek was the constant search for "dilithium." The series since have posited that the magical "antimatter" fuel is "free." Which is boring. A big reason for the opening of Japan in 1854 was the need for refueling stations. Lots of dramatic possibilities in that simple requirement.

Despite the scientific silliness, at least Tony Stark works hard on the hardware and isn't stone-faced about everything, which makes him enjoyable to hang with for a couple of hours. The same can't be said for whoever's been cast to play Batman since Adam West retired from the role.

The repartee between Chris Pine's Steve Trevor and Gal Gadot's Diana in Wonder Woman is reminiscent of classic 1930's screwball comedies. Setting the story within a known historical context and populating that world with one superhero also contributed to making it the best in the genre.

On that score, Deadpool cranked the sarcasm and fourth-wall-breaking knobs up to eleven. I'm not sure it's sustainable but Deadpool also demonstrates how "small" budgets make for better movies ("small" being bigger than any other movie studio on the planet). A smart script gets way better mileage than more CGI.

One of the running jokes in Deadpool is that they couldn't afford any of the big superheroes, so all they get is a couple of sidekicks. Ryan Reynolds, who stars and produces, reportedly insisted on keeping things (relatively) small. Here's to hoping he can keep the superness of the sequel similarly in check.

Related posts

Lois & Clark
The Big Bad
Reframing the mainframe plot

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November 05, 2017

Fuushin ("Weather Vane")


"Fuushin" takes us back to the same time frame as "Hisho's Birds." During the short and destructive dynasty immediately preceding Youko's, Empress Yo attempted to banish all women from the kingdom. Some of the reasons are laid out in chapter 59 of Shadow of the Moon.

The word fuushin (風信) can refer to 1) information about the wind, such as that obtained from a weather vane (風信器). As in English, it can also figuratively mean to 2) "catch wind of something," gossip and rumors (風のたより). I'll use the first to refer symbolically to the second.

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November 02, 2017

The need for speed


Having a living fossil on hand—a twelve-year-old IBM Thinkpad T42—prompted me to do a little benchmarking to see how far the technology has come.

The Intel 8088 in the original IBM PC (1981) clocked in at .33 MIPS (millions of instructions per second). Compare that to the Thinkpad's Pentium M Centrino processor at 7,400 MIPS. A little division reveals that the now old and creaky Pentium M is 25,000 times more powerful than the lowly 8088.

MIPS is a less useful yardstick these days, so I'll use Passmark's CPUMark score. The CPUMark for the Pentium M is 414.

Lets compare apples mostly to apples and stick with a mid-range "economy" laptop configuration: an Intel Core i5-7200U paired with the HD Graphics 620 chipset. A Dell laptop configured with 8 GB RAM and a 1 TB hard drive goes for a third the price of the Thinkpad.

The CPUMark for the Core i5-7200U is 4689, making it ten times more powerful than the Pentium M. But raw CPU benchmarks are not the best way to measure the power of the whole package.

Consider the graphics processing unit (GPU).

The original IBM PC supported 80-column monochrome displays and CGA graphics (320×200 pixels in 4 colors). The Thinkpad T42 has XGA graphics (1024x768 pixels in 16,777,216 colors). These days, pretty much any GPU can drive any resolution. What matters is how fast data can be written to the screen.

The G3D benchmark for the Thinkpad's ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 is 4. Four. Hence the issues playing HD video. The G3D benchmark for the integrated Intel HD Graphics 620 is 945, over 200 times faster. A cheap add-on desktop GPU like the Radeon RX 550 has a G3D benchmark of 3654.

Even Intel's low-end integrated GPUs can output 4K video. The challenge of writing pixels to the screen in True Color and HD has long been addressed. Modern GPUs are powerful computers within the computer designed to decode HD video streams and render 3D computer graphics.

Big performance gains have turned up elsewhere on the motherboard as well.

The PCI Express bus runs twenty times faster than the old PCI/IDE bus. DDR4 SDRAM runs at least ten times faster than DDR1. In a few more years, the SSD should completely replace the slowest component in a PC, the hard drive. That will boost data transfer speeds another order of magnitude.

There is still room to grow on the CPU/GPU front. The high-end Intel Core i9 and AMD Ryzen Threadripper CPUs deliver CPUMarks north of 23,000. Ditto the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080 Ti, with a G3D benchmark of 13,300.

And both currently cost more than the rest of the computer.

Based Moore's Law to date, those prices should decline sharply in the coming years. So as 14 nanometer manufacturing becomes more affordable, we can expect to gain another couple orders of magnitude in raw performance at the consumer level.

At some point, though, quantum and thermodynamic realities will curtail Moore's Law.

Quantum tunneling kicks in with a vengeance below 7 nanometers. Instead of building smaller, the current solution is to "stack" silicon wafers on top of each other, like a high-rise. But the necessity of dissipating heat imposes limitations of its own, which is how we began this discussion.

Microsoft in particular is battling a more pressing technological, or rather, marketing limit. Windows 7, released in 2009, still dominates all other desktop operating systems by a huge margin, with almost half of total market share.

Intel's Core i5 and i7 CPUs have been on the market as long as Windows 7. Unless you're a gamer or power user, there's been no compelling reason to upgrade since. The next PC I buy could be the last PC I will ever need. What will Microsoft and Intel have to sell me in another dozen years?

Related posts

Cool it
MS-DOS at 30
Antique repair
The accidental standard
Back to the digital future

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