August 31, 2009

Landslide!


In November's U.S. election, the Democrats won by a landslide with 259 seats, compared to 176 for the Republicans. After Sunday's election, it looks like Japan's Democratic Party (DPJ) will have an enormous 189 seat majority over the LDP in the 480 seat Lower House of the Diet. Now that's a landslide.

Add to this the amazing fact that for the first time in fifty years, the LDP will be completely displaced from power. The "L" in LDP stands for "Liberal," but it's considered "conservative" and friendly to U.S. interests. Unfortunately, it evolved over the years into the we'll-do-anything-to-stay-in-power party.

Back during the 1990s when the Japanese government was "stimulating" everything in sight, the LDP was the bridge-to-nowhere, bid-rigging and vote-buying party. They should rebrand themselves and become the "Libertarian" DP. The current platform sure ain't working. (Frankly, nothing would these days.)

According to exit polls, more people voted against the LDP than for the (actually liberal) Democratic Party. The general public kept the LDP in power for fifty years. As with the U.S., there's a big difference between voter discontent and wanting to radically switch political directions.

Outgoing LDP PM Taro Aso and his ministers didn't help their cause with a non-stop series of faux pas and "Kinsley gaffes"--especially highly impolitic statements about Japan's precariously aging demographics--that provoked storms of self-righteous outrage but no real solutions from the opposition.

A recent classic was: "Elderly people have no talents other than working." Aso's spokesman later clarified: "What the prime minister really meant was that building a vigorous aging society requires job opportunities for elderly people." Aso was certainly the most entertaining PM since Koizumi.

The old regime was easy to criticize, but the DPJ doesn't have much room to maneuver. Farm price supports? The LDP did that for decades. Toll-free highways? Yeah, the traffic jams aren't bad enough now. Free high schools? That's the one good idea. Public high schools charge students onerous fees to make ends meet.

Add to that a new EIC for kids (attempting to raise the birth rate) and tax cuts. Japan's public debt burden is already worse than ours. Where's this magic money going to come from? The DPJ's best strategy is to do as little as possible and still be around when the economy improves and claim credit.

One commonality between the Taro Aso and incoming PM Yukio Hatoyama is that they both did postgraduate work at Stanford. Current SDF refueling support for U.S. Afghanistan operations will probably be curtailed in the near future, but U.S.-Japan relations should continue on an even keel.

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August 27, 2009

You can go home again (virtually)


Thanks to Google Maps, "googling yourself" takes on a whole new meaning, especially because most addresses in the U.S. have a "street view." It does feel a little creepy at first, but only because you recognize the view. After all, for most people, more relevant "personal" information is available in an online telephone book, not to mention a credit report.

Looking at the house I grew up in reveals that the cul-de-sac has pretty much remained the same a quarter-century later. More interesting is what happened to the lot behind the house where the Mormon church used to be. As I document in a fictionalized account here, it burned down over a decade ago. Because the drainage had always been marginal for a structure that large, it wasn't rebuilt.

Two McMansions sit on the lot now. The woods are still there (again, thick shale and a high water table and upstate New York's long-depressed housing market discourage development). I spent a good portion of my childhood playing in those swamp-infested woods (this was before the present era of permanent parental paranoia), but never before had a good sense of their size (about a half-mile deep and a half-mile wide) or their relationship to the surrounding neighborhoods.

Back then, those woods seemed to go on forever. Google Maps casts those memories in a whole new light.

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August 25, 2009

Literary vacations


Justine at the Segullah blog recalls an encounter with an enthusiastic Twilight fan and wonders which real-life book settings are actually worth visiting. Conclusion: Stratford-on-Avon: yes. Forks, Washington: no. And for that matter, Sandy, Utah: also a no.

Prince Edward Island is a major holiday destination for Japanese fans of Anne of Green Gables. As a general rule, I would say that there must be some historic--other than pop literary--or aesthetic value to the place. So, while Sandy doesn't qualify, plenty of other tourist traps in Utah do.

But if you want to test the waters first without going there, try Google Maps. Type in the address or the general location. The satellite resolution available for places like Stratford-Upon-Avon is amazing. And you can even walk around Temple Square using Street View.

I'm writing a sequel of sorts to Path of Dreams. Part of it takes place at Mt. Koya. Although I spent a touristy day there when I was living in Osaka, Google Maps is an extremely useful tool for reminding myself where everything is. The bird's eye view alone kindles surprising feelings of nostalgia.

Being on the subject of (Mormon) vampires, Justine also links to her (favorable) review of Angel Falling Softly.

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August 21, 2009

Robert McKee's "Story"


If you haven't got the time to plow through Robert McKee's five-hundred page monograph on the art of storytelling, he sums it up nicely here. And I also agree with him that "[the art of storytelling] is not lost, it's just changed its address and moved over to television."

I think one of the reasons television is growing in its influence everywhere in the world is because in television there is no point in trying to be spectacular, and writers are forced to go back into the substance of human conflict in relationships and within human beings, and, as a result, they are producing, overall, the finest work.

Or as Philip Pullman notes about Y/A literature: "You can't put the plot on hold while you cut artistic capers for the amusement of your sophisticated readers, because, thank God, your readers are not sophisticated."

Michael Blowhard praises McKee and gets right to the essence of the argument:

It's idiotic to think that most people's interest in fiction will ever extend too far beyond storytelling, subject matter, hook, and character. An art form that divorces itself from its roots is taking a foolhardy chance.

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August 18, 2009

Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato


Released in 1978 after being rushed through production in a mere six months, Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato followed on the heels of Space Battleship Yamato, which outperformed Star Wars at the box office. Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato doubled that.

With its cute robots, planet-killing "Death Star" antagonist, and "Battle of Britain" fighter scenes, it's clearly derivative of Star Wars. The ship's bridge as the principal set, the protagonist's Kirkian disregard for military protocols, and his propensity--on a ship with hundreds of crew--to rush off to confront his enemies personally are clear nods to Star Trek.

The overdressed, operatically overacting evil aliens with blue or green skin as their only non-human characteristics come straight out of 1950's B-serials.

The crudely-drawn animation is reminiscent of 1960s Saturday morning Johnny Quest cartoons (60,000 cells in a 150 minute movie averages out to 6 fps). However, even given such rough material to work with, the direction by Toshio Masuda and Leiji Matsumoto borders on the brilliant at times, creating visual perspectives cinematically ahead of their time.

About a bajillion people get killed in Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato, just as they do in Star Wars. Though without any blood and guts, Masuda and Matsumoto somehow manage to make the experience a lot more harrowing than in Star Wars.

Despite all the back-to-the-future echoes in the plot--fans of the original Star Trek series will recognize how the Yamato is turned into a big antimatter weapon, the "grand theft starship" business from Star Trek III (1984), and destroying a Death Star by flying inside it from Return of the Jedi (1983)--the Yamato itself is all Japanese and all Leiji Matsumoto.

Anachronistic space opera is Matsumoto's unique oeuvre, including pirate galleons in space (Captain Harlock), WWII battleships in space (Space Battleship Yamato), and steam engines in space (Galaxy Express 999). That last one is his most inspired and most inspiring. The 1979 film version is a remarkably exploration of moral philosophy through science fiction.

To be sure, despite its financial success, die-hard fans did not react well to practically the entire crew getting killed and the ship itself being destroyed. The events of Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato have since been relegated to an "alternate timeline," and the series--both television and theatrical releases--was resurrected anew.

However, I believe that Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato is actually the most true to its namesake and to the enormous weight of history that the story of the Yamato carries with her. Yamato is the ancient name of Japan, and the original battleship Yamato carried the Emperor's Imperial Seal prominently displayed on its bow.

Commissioned a week after Pearl Harbor, the Yamato and her sister ship Musashi were the biggest battleships ever built, and their eighteen-inch main guns the largest ever mounted on a ship. The Yamato's first deployment was as Admiral Yamamoto's flagship during the Battle of Midway, though it never directly engaged U.S. forces.

But as Eliot wrote, "In my beginning is my end." The Battle of Midway made the battleship an anachronism. The Yamato was too valuable a symbol to risk as a "tin can" destroyer and was too fuel-hungry to use in middling support tasks. Aside from occasional run-ins with U.S. submarines, the Yamato saw minimal combat duty until October 1944.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf ended its career. In one of the most remarkable naval engagements in history, the tiny "Taffy 3" escort group fought an entire task force led by the Yamato to a draw. The mighty Yamato proved no match for the puny but radar-directed five-inch guns of the U.S. destroyers and the antiquated Wildcat and Avenger fighters from the escort carriers.

The Yamato spent most of its last year docked at its home base in Kure on the Inland Sea. Finally, in the name of blustering patriotism and "morale," it was sent on a suicide mission--with only enough fuel for a one-way trip--to engage the U.S. Navy off the shores of Okinawa.

The Yamato was attacked by carrier-based torpedo and dive bombers as soon as it emerged into the East China Sea. It was sunk two hours later. Only a handful of sailors escaped when its ammunition magazines exploded. The ship sank with 2,498 hands on board, the largest loss of life attributed to a single ship in peacetime or war (the Titanic lost 1,517).

Otoko-tachi no Yamato ("Our Yamato") is the latest attempt (2005) to document the life and death of the Yamato with a gory, melodramatic, Ridley Scott-style Hollywood approach. Except that lots of stuff spectacularly blowing up can't mask the criminally stupid waste of men and material that marked the Yamato's final voyage.

At least the Light Brigade featured in Tennyson's famous poem overran the Russian positions they were aiming at, but were forced to retreat when the less suicidal Heavy Brigade didn't advance down the "Valley of Death" after them. Pickett's Charge briefly breached the Union line on Cemetery Ridge before being pushed back with crippling losses.

All the Yamato managed to do was temporarily distract U.S. fighters from their more important job of shooting down kamikaze. The Yamato got nowhere near Okinawa. It didn't accomplish a single military objective. Twenty-five hundred men died for absolutely nothing.

At its heart, I can't help but read the Space Battleship Yamato series as an attempt to vest meaning in that meaningless loss.

In nods to The Philadelphia Experiment and Raise the Titanic! a starship is constructed inside the wreck of the Yamato, and then raised from the bottom of the ocean to battle aliens out to destroy the Earth. Spinoffs also have the ship being purposely sunk to prevent top-secret technology from falling into enemy hands, which is then salvaged by later generations.

Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato then becomes a restaging of the battleship's final, tragic mission (April 6-7, 1945). With the captain dead at the helm and the first mate alone alive at the wheel, the ultimate sacrifice made this time around is truly noble. The Yamato dies for something, saving the Earth from destruction and saving the lives of billions.

Even so, the historical perspective makes it all the more painful to watch. The most appropriate treatment of the Yamato story is perhaps the "Crossing the River of Time" episode of Kamichu! (DVD 3 episode 9). Kamichu! is about a junior high school student living in a fishing village near Kure, who wakes up one morning to discover she's turned into a minor Shinto deity.

In "Crossing the River of Time," Yurie escorts the "soul" of the Yamato (Shinto theology stipulates that all things--animate and inanimate--have unique souls or gods) back to her home base in Kure. It is a moving story that recognizes the bravery of the men who served on the Yamato, and the magnitude of their loss, without rationalizing or wallowing in it.

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August 13, 2009

One handwave to rule them all


A funny Onion parody of the inherent pitfalls with "hard" science fiction. And why science fiction plot devices too difficult to explain for real either shouldn't be used in the first place, or should be written in a manner that can be handled with an accessible metaphor.

A reading of Gabriel Fournier's The Eclipse Of Infinity reveals that the new science-fiction novel makes more than 80 separate references to "quantum flux," a vaguely defined force the author uses to advance the plot, resolve conflict as needed, and account for dozens of glaring inconsistencies.

One thing that Numbers does nicely is come up with metaphors to explain complex scientific concepts. However, this isn't easy to do "naturally" either, and the didactic interruptions to the narrative--and the clumsy excuses used to insert them--get annoying after a while.

Just as the writer of a whodunit has to be as smart as the villain, the writer of hard science fiction has to actually understand the science--and be able to write a good story besides. Which is probably why I find that I admire hard science fiction more than I actually enjoy it.

Television shows like The Mentalist--where the lead character relies on misdirection and psychological slight of hand--are a welcome relief to the increasingly phony science in CSI-type shows, where DNA tests can be run over a commercial break and a chip of paint can identify any car.

I'm also getting tired of 128-bit encryption that can be cracked in a matter of minutes, TCP/IP connections that can be traced in a matter of minutes (always to a concrete location). Though when the demands of plot randomly kick in, either of those two suddenly becomes absolutely impossible.

All fiction needs handwaves. But there are limits. Patrick Jane (The Mentalist) would trick the mark into giving him the password. Now that's plausible. Bones does a good job of putting the "hard" and "squishy" sciences in conflict with each other (and a good job not taking itself seriously).

The brilliant anime series Noein tackles the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics with a depth of insight that I haven't seen elsewhere. The problem is, it tries so hard to be "hard" science fiction that whole paragraphs of dialogue often degrade into meaningless technobabble.

A Star Trek: TNG episode covered the same subject matter and did a better job keeping-it-simple (but not stupid). Noein has ten times the dramatic depth, though. With a few more metaphors and judicious handwaves, and less technobabble and a bit of editing, it'd be a masterpiece.

But speaking of quantum mechanics:

I don't trust quantum mechanics. I took my car to a quantum mechanic and asked him to fix the speedometer. Now I have no idea where my car is.

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August 11, 2009

Buddhism in a Global Age of Technology


The first part of Lewis Lancaster's lecture, in which he discusses the factors that make a religion "portable," is the most compelling, especially addressing what he calls "pollution" issues.

Mormonism, like Buddhism, has a compelling death theology. But it is plagued institutionally (temple rites) and culturally by pollution phobias that could prove debilitating in the long term.

Lancaster nicely sums up Buddhist metaphysics, especially in terms of perception and causation. He gets fuzzy-wuzzy at times and overstates his case, but that's the nature of religion.

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August 09, 2009

Not armed and not dangerous


On Friday, the Japanese news media (including the staid NHK) decided that the "first jury trial in over 50 years" was yesterday's news (the defendant got 15 years and the jurors opined that "it wasn't as complicated as they make it look in TV dramas," probably because few crimes are as complicated as in TV dramas).

So they switched to wall-to-wall coverage of pop singer Noriko Sakai, who skedaddled after her husband got nabbed for drug possession. The missing persons case turned into a manhunt when it turned out that, thanks to DNA (!) analysis, Ms. Sakai had used the drug paraphernalia in her husband's possession.

She was arrested Saturday night (she says her husband made her do it). What a relief. It's safe once again to go out at night.

In an if-it-bleeds-it-leads media culture, a country's state of affairs can't be all that bad off when the national news leads with breathless coverage of a cute, drug-snorting "idol" on the lam. (Among other things, Noriko Sakai did the theme song for Video Girl Ai. Hey, I own the soundtrack and the DVD!)

Peter Payne posted this perfect poster.

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August 06, 2009

Where there's smoke, there's smoke


The fire station is only two blocks away, hence the big turn-out. On a typical call, the sirens are kept off until they turn onto State Street or 800 North. So when the sirens sound really close, it's time to go take a look. Smoke was coming from a four-plex down the street. Probably something left on the stove. As far as I could tell, they charged the hoses but never used them.


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August 04, 2009

We, the Jury


Yesterday, Japan held its first jury trial in over 50 years. The Japanese media has been wringing its hands in gleeful angst ever since the law passed, conducting countless polls, discussion groups, town halls, not to mention that cop shows have discovered jury tampering as a plot.

It's as if they're trying their hardest to to confirm every stereotype about the pull of state paternalism. It's bizarre to hear the "man on the street" complaining that it's wrong to ask people to judge others. Apparently judges aren't "people" in the same way that samurai weren't.

The rubbernecking, though, is going full tilt. The trial topped the 24-hour news cycle, complete with breathless "live" coverage and commentary, the kind of thing that turns into the media covering itself. Almost 2400 people lined up for a shot at the few dozen gallery seats.

NHK even built a dollhouse-sized scale model of the courtroom. And since the gag rule governing jurors is iron clad, we instead got to listen to people in the jury pool who'd been peremptorily challenged and basically said, "Well, I didn't get chosen. It's kind of a relief." News!

I actually think that the new Japanese system is an improvement on the American system. Japanese jurors are more like lay judges. The six jurors sit with the three trial judges in a configuration that resembles an appeals court. They can directly question witnesses.

The juror as a passive spectator giving a thumbs up or down to a contest between combating lawyers is like the NPR game show Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, where three panelists read news stories, two of which are made up, and the contestant has to pick the real one.

Where technical issues are involved, a "jury of one's peers" should mean people technically capable of understanding and evaluating those issues, not people deliberately chosen for their susceptibility to emotional arguments or their outright ignorance of current events.

The one big failing in Japan's new jury system is that it's the wrong solution for a much worse problem, namely the lack of due process safeguards at the law enforcement level. But I suspect the politicians didn't want to touch that hot potato with a ten foot poll.

Consider how popular entertainment treats due process in shows friendly to the law enforcement perspective. In Law & Order, Bones or CSI, for example, there's the inevitable interrogation scene. The suspect is seated at a table (usually with a lawyer), the cop across from him.

It's not a big room but not claustrophobic (and in real life not so darkly lit). Everybody talks in measured tones. The lawyer can stop the process at any time. If a cop starts getting "dramatic," somebody will tell him to calm down. "Or you're off the case, buster!"

The same scene in a Japanese cop show: the suspect is seated at a teeny tiny table in a room the size of a broom closet. And there are at least four other cops standing over him and SCREAMING at him. No lawyer (there wouldn't be enough room). Remember, the cops are the good guys!

Okay, at some point the protagonist will poke his head into the room and ask the one penetrating question that cracks the case. But habeas corpus rights don't kick in for 23 days! That means the cops can keep you on ice for three weeks before giving you a hearing before a judge!

No wonder confessions play such a significant role in Japan's 99 percent conviction rate. No wonder so many defendants later retract their statements.

Even this very first jury trial in Japan since WWII is open and shut. The defendant already confessed, so it's only a sentencing trial. I suspect one unstated intent of the new jury law is to introduce the real possibility of jury nullification as a check on police power.

(I describe my experience as a member of two jury pools here.)

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