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

Labels: , , , ,

November 12, 2017

Fuushin (1)

I've posted chapter 1 of "Fuushin."

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)

Labels: , ,

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

Labels: , , , , , ,

November 05, 2017


"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.

Labels: ,

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

Labels: , ,

October 29, 2017

Blue Orchid (afterword)

I've posted the afterword to "Blue Orchid."

Just to clarify the timeline, the afterword chronologically follows the preface. Thus the narrative contains Hyouchuu's story nested within Kyoukei's.

Labels: ,

October 26, 2017

Cool it

My ancient IBM Thinkpad T42 came through another operation with only the slightest of glitches. Pouring pour new (well, used) wine into a very old bottle, I replaced the cooling fan in the ancient XP machine, now a dozen years old (keep in mind that computers age in dog years).

My workaround for the past year or so was to douse the motor with WD-40 and silicon spray every few weeks. But the bearings got so worn out that even when the motor spun up, avoiding the dreaded "Fan error" BIOS message, it sounded like an old lawnmower on its last legs.

Not to mention that the cooling efficiency went way down, turning the palmrest into a hand warmer.

Thankfully, refurbished Thinkpad fan and heatsink units can be had for around ten bucks (the T42 switched heatsink designs somewhere along the line so getting the right model matters; it can't be jury-rigged like the keyboard).

After removing enough screws to pop off the top bezel (the number of screws holding a piece of electronic equipment together is a good proxy for how old it is), the only onerous chore was blotting up all the accumulated oil. But it cleaned up nicely and the replacement heatsink fit perfectly.

I applied probably too much MX-4 thermal compound and screwed everything back together, only ending up with one extra screw (a broken thread) and piece of plastic that I couldn't figure out where it the world it belonged.

I got a "Fan error" the first time I powered it on. Removing the keyboard and spinning the fan with my finger did the trick. I imagine it'd been sitting in a warehouse for a decade and needed a nudge to the rotor awaken it from its long slumber. The fan is quiet and CPU temperature is "nominal."

In fact, the palmrest is so much cooler now I suspect the thermal compound dried out more than a few years ago (removing the heatsink from the CPU required zero effort), turning the CPU into a space heater, which in turn cooked the fan bearings.

The Thinkpad still faces the same problems as my old Windows 95 machine. It runs fine but is short on hard disc space and struggles to handle basic browsing tasks. Office isn't an issue, but some websites can take minutes to fully load. HD video and HTML5 kill it dead in its tracks.

But like my equally ancient Ford, I'm driving this faithful old clunker until the wheels fall off (not literally, I hope).

Related posts

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

Labels: , ,

October 22, 2017

Blue Orchid (8)

I've posted chapter 8 of "Blue Orchid."

The shusei (朱旌), also known as koushu (黄朱), are further classified as shushi (yaboku and yojuu hunters), goushi (guides and bodyguards for the Shouzan), and shumin (traveling entertainers and peddlers with no fixed place of abode).

More about the names of the Yellow Sea guilds here.

Labels: ,

October 19, 2017

Big junk day

Especially during the go-go 1980s, the Japanese were no slackers in the conspicuous consumption department. This started back in the 1960s, when the "Three Sacred Treasures" (a wry reference to the Imperial Regalia) were a television, a refrigerator and a washing machine.

Heart-warming movies like Always that take place in the post-war period dependably include a character who is the first in the neighborhood to buy the latest electronic gadget or appliance.

In the first movie, the dad (top right) is the first on the block to buy a B&W television. In the third installment, he's the first on the block to buy a color television (which would have cost the equivalent of several thousand dollars).

The inevitable problem in a country where storage space (like garages) is in very short supply is what to do with the old stuff. The answer: So dai gomi hi (粗大ごみ日) or "Big junk day." It's the day on which large pieces of refuse may be legally discarded in designated areas.

"Big Junk Day" produced a mountain of stuff in the central plaza of the apartment complex where I lived in Osaka. The first scavengers on the scene were the used appliance retailers, a great source for warrantied refurbished appliances on a budget (delivery included!).

If you don't mind crawling through the junk to get at the good stuff, you might come away with a prize. Courtesy of Hiroyuki Kitazawa, here's a more modest dai gomi collection. Cities that don't have a specific day will often haul stuff away for a nominal fee.

Labels: , , ,

October 15, 2017

Blue Orchid (7)

I've posted chapter 7 of "Blue Orchid."

In Embracing Defeat, John Dower documents the orgy of corruption and looting that took place in Japan during the few shorts weeks after Hirohito's public address announcing the surrender and before the post-war Occupation formally began.

The emperor's loyal soldiers and sailors seemed to have metamorphosed overnight into symbols of the worst sort of egoism and atomization. Officers as well as enlisted men engaged in looting, sometimes on a grand scale, and police reports expressed fear that public disgust would extend upward to "grave distrust, frustration, and antipathy toward military and civilian leaders," even "hatred of the military" in general.

During the Occupation, all that loot spilled onto the black market, which was made worse by the efforts of the Occupation forces to suppress it (as with Prohibition and organized crime, the yakuza was reborn during this era).

Recall from Poseidon of the East that the emperor indeed has no interest in the bureaucracy. But his willingness to delegate will prove a very successful approach to governance.

Labels: , , ,

October 12, 2017


I'm sure that somewhere along the line, the final cut of Logan was heavily influenced by Deadpool, which proved that a decidedly not family-friendly superhero flick could find a niche and deliver healthy box offices receipts.

And, as with Deadpool, it mostly works. Which isn't to say that being dark and gritty for its own sake (for ART!!!) is necessarily a good thing. I imagine Disney will keep things in check. I actually found the cussing less objectionable than the non-stop killing of "redshirts."

Nothing is more morally weird than the way the MPAA rates movies.

I'm not a devotee of superhero movies, so I don't have a long list to compare and contrast. But Logan is better than most. Though on an absolute scale it's still not very good, especially compared to Deadpool and Wonder Woman.

Logan is redeemed by Wolverine being so broken down he's almost "normal." Unfortunately, the plot of Logan was old when The X-Files did it to death—some evil corporation or government guy making and/or chasing "gifted" children around. The Ghost in the Shell remake has the same problem.

(Logan perhaps works best as a clever way to reboot the franchise, though I don't get why they clumsily set it in the "near future." By the time those kids grow up it will be the near future and time to start rolling sequels off the assembly line.)

In the process, Logan makes clear how more interesting the whole series might have been had Jackman's Wolverine that vulnerable all along. And had Patrick Stewart's Charles Xavier been that unstable from the start (the same way Stewart's manic Picard in Star Trek: First Contact is so refreshing).

And how much Wolverine not having to share the stage with a crowd of other heroes-in-tights improves the drama. Alas, comic book franchises these days are all about the "universe" of characters occupying them, which can't help but get unbelievably stupid in very short order.

Okay, so the R-rated superhero flick is now a thing (although anime has been doing it for ages). But here's another variation on a theme for the superhero franchises to test out (at the end of their run).

As with Logan, invent some alternate universe where all the rest of the boring superheros have been killed off except for the actually interesting (and vaguely plausible) one. Then let him deal with a world where all of the supervillains have been killed off too.

Labels: , , , , ,

October 08, 2017

Blue Orchid (6)

I've posted chapter 6 of "Blue Orchid."

The author uses a curious idiom in this chapter: 「梨の礫」 (nashi no subute). Literally, "a pear's small stones." It means to get no response to an action, which I translated as "hitting a brick wall" (p. 247).

In this case, nashi (梨) is an ateji (当て字), a written kanji assigned to a word based on how it is read aloud (the phoneme), not the meaning.

Perhaps the most common ateji known around the world is sushi (寿司). Its kanji, meaning "longevity" and "political administration," have nothing to do with fish or even food.

A little online research reveals that nashi should logically be written 「無し」 or "none, without any." Thus the expression literally means "no small stones." Throw small stones at a big problem and you'll get no response.

As the result of a semantic substitution or a malapropism that caught on, the adverb nashi was replaced by a noun ("pear") that is its homonymic equivalent but whose literal meaning is nonsensical.

To be sure, all languages, no less English, are plagued by such idioms and colloquial expressions. Off the top of my head (not the bottom or the side):

"head over heels" (not "heels over head"?)
"pull one's leg"
"drunk as a skunk"
"as all get out"

And when you're done, be sure to put the cat back in the bag.

Labels: , , ,

October 05, 2017

"Shogun" revisited (4)

What struck me the most forcefully when I started rewatching Shogun for the first time in almost 40 years is how politically incorrect it is starting out. And I don't mean the silly Orientalism that You Only Live Twice revels in (though there is plenty of that).

No sooner has Chamberlain's Blackthorne run his ship aground in the "Japans" but his ego collides with every human obstacle in literal spitting (and pissing) distance. In the process, determined to repay every slight and assert his authority, he makes life much worse for himself and his men.

However he may realize that he is a stranger in a strange land, it takes him too long to grasp how the balance of power has shifted, that he has no power and no authority except that which is granted to him.

In any early scene, the hugely enjoyable John Rhys-Davies (his part isn't nearly big enough) commiserates with him in a hilariously vulgar rant. I doubt that any network would broadcast such a soliloquy of racial slurs over the air today.

This is not vulgarity for its own sake. In Blackthorne, Clavell creates a character arc comparable to Clint Eastwood's Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino and even Andrew Garfield's Rodrigues in Silence (though at opposite ends of the civility and introspection spectrums).

All three men find themselves at war with an image of themselves that cannot survive a changing environment, with the moral stakes raised all the higher when the fate of third parties become dependent on their actions.

In both Silence and Shogun, the well-being of their colleagues, and then the lives of villagers unknown to them, are used to extort from them external changes in behavior (in Japanese, tatemae) that eventually become incorporated into their characters (honne).

The English translation of Shusaku Endo's novel was published in 1969, which leads me to believe Clavell was familiar with it when writing Shogun.

There was literally no going back for Blackthorne. He had to adapt or be crushed underfoot, because the new world was not going to adapt to suit his whims. By the end of the story, his sense of who he is as an Englishman will have been taken apart and remade in Japanese terms.

The striking nature of his transformation is illustrated when he is briefly reunited with his old crew. They haven't changed. They can't even imaging changing. The differences are stark. They have literally grown worlds apart. He can't leave their presence and get back to "Japan" fast enough.

Like Rodrigues in Silence, this is a transformation resisted, negotiated, and then embraced. In Blackthorne's case, however, he does so largely on his own terms and not at the point of a sword.

A big disappointment of Shogun is that so much happened after the miniseries ends. As a retainer of Tokugawa Ieyasu, Adams fought at Sekigahara, he negotiated trading rights with the Dutch and the East India Company, and captained several voyages to the Phillipines.

As the fictional Father Alvito predicts, Will Adams never returned to England. He died in 1620, leaving behind families in both countries. Adams is buried outside Nagasaki, where his grave marker still exists. Richard Cocks of the East India Company recorded in his diary,

I cannot but be sorrowfull for the loss of such a man as Capt William Adams, he having been in such favour with two [shoguns] of Japan as never any Christian in these part of the world.

Two and a half centuries later, another man from the British Isles, the Scotsman Thomas Glover, moved to Japan. In 1859, he established himself in Nagasaki and became a key arms dealer supplying guns and warships to the Satsuma and Choshu domains in their successful revolt against the shogunate.

Glover went on to contribute significantly to the industrialization of Japan during the Meiji period. Unlike Adams, he couldn't be made the hatamoto of a shogun who no longer existed. He was instead awarded the Order of the Rising Sun. Like Adams, he was also buried in Nagasaki.

And thus did two subjects of the Queen of England help shape the future of Japan.

Related posts

Shogun revisited
Dances with Samurai
Japan made in Hollywood
Dogs, demons, and construction companies

Labels: , , , ,

October 01, 2017

Blue Orchid (5)

I've posted chapter 5 of "Blue Orchid."

The roboku (路木) is the riboku located at the heart of the Imperial Palace. The riboku is first described in chapter 53 of Shadow of the Moon. New species of plants can essentially be bioengineered via the roboku. In the wild, they also spontaneously evolve new plants and flowers on their own, as Rangyoku explains in chapter 33 of A Thousand Leagues of Wind.

Labels: ,