November 30, 2008

Tapetum lucidum

The eyes of many predatory animals—and the animals they prey upon—glow in the dark because of the tapetum lucidum, "a special, reflective surface right behind their retinas." NPR's "Science Out Of The Box" explains it here.

At the end of the chapter, Milada quotes from Paradise Lost, Book I:

In ancient Greece; and in Ausonian land
Men call'd him Mulciber; and how he fell
From Heav'n, they fabl'd, thrown by angry Jove
Sheer o're the Chrystal Battlements: from Morn
To Noon he fell, from Noon to dewy Eve,
A Summers day; and with the setting Sun
Dropt from the Zenith like a falling Star[.]

The verse Rachel remembers is from the Book of Revelation, chapter 12 (KJV):

And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

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November 29, 2008

Chapter 5 (Pen-pals)

Ono no Komachi was a 9th century Japanese poet. Because of her legendary beauty, komachi became a synonym for a beautiful woman.

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November 26, 2008

Skinny and cute

Kaori Shoji informs us in the International Herald Tribune that "in Japan, it's the men who want to be skinny and cute."

Young males between the ages of 18 and 30 make up the slimmest segment of the population and the ideal fashion weight as decreed by the apparel industry is 57 kilograms, or about 125 pounds, for a height of 175 centimeters, or 5 feet 8 inches.

This strikes me as one of those deeply-researched MSM pieces based on a sample size of "me and my two best friends." The business about the girlfriends weighing more than their boyfriends is physically improbable. But in general I think she's onto something.

A recent episode of NHK's Cool Japan program polled Japanese women to create a composite of the "ideal man." He turned out to be the twin of popular enka crooner Kiyoshi Hikawa. According to his record label, Hikawa is 177 cm tall and weighs 62 kg (5'9.5" 136 lbs).

Those are my approximate dimensions, and I'm a beanpole. Before looking up the actual numbers, I'd assumed from watching his variety show that Hikawa was around six feet tall. But that's because his guests are usually so much shorter than he is. So we may be talking about tastes governed by situationally-relative dimensions.

To be sure, as an enka artist, Hikawa is most popular with the forty-plus crowd. Though the boy band idols on NHK's Pop Music Club (think American Bandstand) that have thousands of teenage girls screaming their lungs out every week look pretty much like teenage Hikawa clones.

Then consider yaoi and the Takarazuka theater troupe. In Takarazuka productions, all the male roles are played by women. The willowy, porcelain-skinned Takarazuka "leading man" looks exactly like the typical yaoi protagonist, and an awful lot like Kiyoshi Hikawa.

But the most annoying aspect of contemporary male fashion in Japan is long bangs. I can't abide my bangs getting into my line of sight (pragmatics, not aesthetics). Yet you see it even on suit-wearing businessmen and news anchors. It brings out the old geezer in me. I want to throw things at the screen and shout, "Cut yer darned hair!"

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November 24, 2008

The best "Twilight" review so far

As previously noted, I really enjoyed Dirty Harry's take on the film: "old-fashioned" as the new new. Seriously, I think he's onto something.

Twilight is the anti-everything awful and insidious produced these last fifteen years to further the left’s malicious goal of insinuating themselves in that spot they find most comfortable: right between you and your children. Not a single one of the cultural, sexual, or political pitfalls so common in movies (and public schools) are found here. Even the way in which the film’s directed, edited and scored is anti-MTV.

But David Edelstein at NPR does Dirty Harry one better. Kristen Stewart (as Bella), he argues, is so "much better at conveying physical longing than any of the actors playing vampires" that

she alone suggests how this series was born, in the mind of a young Mormon girl who had to sublimate like mad with thoughts of vampires. Duncan Lance Black, the screenwriter of the gay-rights activist Harvey Milk biopic with Sean Penn opening next week, is also a Mormon. With characters that veer between implosive sexual repression and explosive sexual liberation, Mormons might well be the new Catholics.

Sublimating our way to high art, yeah, that's the ticket! (Hmm, on the other hand, not a bad idea at all.)

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November 23, 2008

Saul and the Witch of Endor

From Luke 18:2-5 (KJV):

There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man. And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto [the judge], saying, "Avenge me of mine adversary."

And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, "Though I fear not God, nor regard man; yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me."

And the Lord said, "Hear what the unjust judge saith."

Be you a believer or not, the story of Saul and the Witch of Endor in the Old Testament is one of the great all-time Bible stories. Starting with 1 Samuel 28:3 (NIV):

Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had mourned for him and buried him in his own town of Ramah. Saul had expelled the mediums and spiritists from the land.

The Philistines assembled and came and set up camp at Shunem, while Saul gathered all the Israelites and set up camp at Gilboa. When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid; terror filled his heart. He inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets. Saul then said to his attendants, "Find me a woman who is a medium, so I may go and inquire of her."

"There is one in Endor," they said.

So Saul disguised himself, putting on other clothes, and at night he and two men went to the woman. "Consult a spirit for me," he said, "and bring up for me the one I name."

But the woman said to him, "Surely you know what Saul has done. He has cut off the mediums and spiritists from the land. Why have you set a trap for my life to bring about my death?"

Saul swore to her by the Lord, "As surely as the Lord lives, you will not be punished for this."

Then the woman asked, "Whom shall I bring up for you?"

"Bring up Samuel," he said.

When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out at the top of her voice and said to Saul, "Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!"

The king said to her, "Don't be afraid. What do you see?"

The woman said, "I see a spirit a coming up out of the ground."

"What does he look like?" he asked.

"An old man wearing a robe is coming up," she said.

Then Saul knew it was Samuel, and he bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground.

Samuel said to Saul, "Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?"

"I am in great distress," Saul said. "The Philistines are fighting against me, and God has turned away from me. He no longer answers me, either by prophets or by dreams. So I have called on you to tell me what to do."

Samuel said, "Why do you consult me, now that the Lord has turned away from you and become your enemy? The Lord has done what he predicted through me. The Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hands and given it to one of your neighbors—to David. Because you did not obey the Lord or carry out his fierce wrath against the Amalekites, the Lord has done this to you today. The Lord will hand over both Israel and you to the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The Lord will also hand over the army of Israel to the Philistines."

Immediately Saul fell full length on the ground, filled with fear because of Samuel's words. His strength was gone, for he had eaten nothing all that day and night.

When the woman came to Saul and saw that he was greatly shaken, she said, "Look, your maidservant has obeyed you. I took my life in my hands and did what you told me to do. Now please listen to your servant and let me give you some food so you may eat and have the strength to go on your way."

I will allude to these final verses again in chapter 36.

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November 22, 2008

Chapter 4 (Pen-pals)

Japan has an emperor, but the modern Japanese emperor occupies a purely ceremonial position--though in Japan, people with purely ceremonial positions can still find themselves very busy.

"Youko" is the kun-yomi (Japanese reading) of the characters. When she's living "undercover" in A Thousand Leagues of Wind, she refers to herself as "Youshi" (the on-yomi).

In the past, the kun-yomi of her name would be unusual in China. The recent popularity of Japanese culture and growing economic trade between Japan and China has meant that Japanese words are being adopted by Chinese speakers. Historically, it's usually been the other way around.

Rakushun's university nickname, Bunchou (文張), is the same as his father's.

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November 20, 2008

American and British Houses

Even knowing that Hugh Laurie played Bertie Wooster (one of the funniest television series ever), I have a hard time associating his current persona with anybody but House. So hearing him speak in his "normal" voice makes me think he's "acting." I never even suspected that some of the other actors mentioned in this story were British or Australian. I saw Anthony LaPaglia a couple of years ago in an Aussie arthouse flick (Lantana) and thought at the time, "What'd they cast an American for?"

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November 18, 2008

Dying electronic metaphors

Matt Springer observed in a recent post that the famous first line of William Gibson's Neuromancer has gone the way of the buggy whip:

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

I spent a good part of my teenager years repairing ancient B&W tube televisions, so Gibson's metaphor still resonates strongly with me. But you can't tune a modern television set to an "empty" channel. When no signal is detected, it simply displays a blue screen.

In the comments, Chad Orzel points out that Neil Gaiman homages Gibson in his novel Neverwhere (chapter 20, second paragraph):

The sky was the perfect untroubled blue of a television screen tuned to a dead channel.

I'm also reminded of an On the Media story from January 2005 about the (mostly) dead technology represented by the "record scratch" sound effect.

The intrepid reporter had no problem finding kids who couldn't identify the needle-on-vinyl source of the sound. But like a colloquial expression whose etymology has been lost in the mists of time, everybody still knows what the record scratch "means."

And for good measure, the story before that one documents the decline and fall of reel-to-reel analog recording tape.

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November 15, 2008

Chapter 3 (Pen-pals)

I discuss azana here. Hanjuu (半獣), lit. "half beast," is a person who can switch between human and animal appearance.

鳴賢 [めいけん] Meiken (crowing + intelligent)
蛛枕 [ちゅちん] Chuchin (spider + pillow)
進達 [しんたつ] Shintatsu (advance + accomplish)
文張 [ぶんちょう] Bunchou (literature + stretch out); this is a play on Rakushun's given name, Chou Sei (張清), that I render as "Captain of Composition."

In Japan, archery (アーチェリー), using western-style bows, is distinguished from kyuudou (弓道), using the traditional Japanese bow, or yumi (弓). It is a martial art where form and execution are considered two aspects of the whole.

Juku (塾) are private "cram" schools. Meiken's description of the educational system in En shares many similarities with Japan at the junior high and high school level.

The koseki (戸籍) system is still used in Japan. The koseki is a locally-stored census record that records all of a person's demographic information, including birth, death, marriages, divorces, and criminal convictions.

An allotment is a plot of land granted to a citizen upon reaching adulthood. The allotment system is described in chapter 25 of A Thousand Leagues of Wind.

"All I did was pick up something lying at the side of the road." This is how Rakushun and Youko meet in chapter 35 of Shadow of the Moon.

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November 12, 2008

Oh, boy, it's the end of the world!

As illustrated in Vexille, a perverse pride in we humans ending the world as we know it lies at the heart of the modern techno-panic. Nuclear winter and global warming are ultimately celebrations of how dastardly clever we are in all our "Dr. No" evilness. The malevolent and laughably efficient IT capabilities of the government on display in Enemy of the State is a cinematic case in point.

The superhero is only as good as the supervillain is bad. Ordinarily incompetent governments and their fumbling, bumbling agencies are a bunch of killjoys (but do just as much damage).

In any case, nature's got us beat in the long run. To be sure, the sun has a few billion years of life left in her, and very few of the stars in our galactic neighborhood could possibly produce a gamma ray event capable of turning us into beef jerky. We currently possess the technology necessary to detect and deflect a killer asteroid (though it wouldn't be as interesting as in the movies).

But not all global extinctions are caused by asteroids or gamma ray events. Ice ages make repeat appearances, with the last glacial maximum occurring a mere 20,000 years ago. For starters, all those pretty glaciers would make Canada, the northern U.S., Northern Europe and Russia uninhabitable. The agricultural carrying capacity of the planet would fall by several orders of magnitude.

But ice ages are slow and boring, as are the IPCC's worst-case global warming scenarios. On the other hand, supervolcanoes have triggered the atmospheric equivalent of asteroid strikes within the span of human evolution (Lake Toba, Indonesia, approximately 75,000 years ago). A few hundred miles from where I live, Yellowstone Park sits on top of an active supervolcano caldera.

The fun and exciting thing about supervolcanoes is that they're definitely not glacial, and unlike asteroids, there is no way to predict a supervolcano eruption to within the error of a human lifetime, or to prevent one from erupting, or to stop one once it has. The next time a Lake Toba or Yellowstone lights up (and one will one day), life as we know it is basically toast.

Sweet dreams.

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November 10, 2008


Vexille is a pastiche of every post-apocalyptic, mecha, and special forces anime series made in the last decade, plus Dune, Star Wars, The Road Warrior, The Matrix, The Terminator, I, Robot and The Stand (I'm sure I left out a few). And like an Island of Dr. Moreau mutant creature, it inherits all of their genetic abnormalities to one extent or another.

Thus an elite taskforce is tasked to keep conspiring androids from taking over the world from their Death Star-type island fortress (with the required design flaws in its supposedly impenetrable defenses). This island sits in the middle of Tokyo Bay, while the rest of Japan has been reduced to a desert full of giant robotic sandworms and macho guys driving supercharged dune buggies.

In the it's-so-bad-it's-good department, I rather enjoyed it because it is so shamelessly derivative and yet takes itself so seriously.

It was directed by Fumihiko Sori, who produced the digitally-animated Appleseed. Both have the same look and feel, 3-D anime with motion capture. I don't mind it, as it avoids the "uncanny valley" problem that comes with trying to approach the "human" look too closely, and the motion capture eliminates the jerkiness that comes with low-cost, hand-drawn animation.

Appleseed is considerably smarter than Vexille, though it still employs a thoroughly 1960s Star Trek plot involving a pair of rogue mainframes. For intelligent mecha/special forces fare, I'd recommend Ghost in the Shell: SAC, Patlabor and Full Metal Panic: Second Raid. As for pale imitations of The Road Warrior, well, there's always Beyond Thunderdome.

The most interesting thing about Vexille is that the bad guys are Japanese and the Americans come riding to the rescue. Granted, our American heroes are as cardboard as any B-grade action flick, and they don't end up saving anything but themselves. But I can't remember another film in this genre where the Americans ride off into the sunset while Japan goes down the tubes.

Perhaps the closest thing is the final scene of Planet of the Apes (Charlton Heston version). Vexille doesn't come anywhere near that level of pathos (except stereotypically), and it's sort as if told from the apes' point of view.

On the other hand, one sign of being a "developed nation" is making movies about how wicked bad we all are. Vexille is about how the nation of Japan drives itself to extinction because the Japanese are so darned clever. An eye-rollingly ginormous X-Files type of conspiracy is necessary. But that implies one heck of an efficient civil service. Even that's a back-handed compliment.

So to conclude on a complimentary note, Vexille provides further proof that, as Gerald Ford wisely observed (widely misattributed to Thomas Jefferson), "a government big enough to supply everything you need is big enough to take away everything you have." Or as Ronald Reagan put it, "The ten most dangerous words in the English language are: 'I'm from the federal government, and I'm here to help.'"

Think of it as a libertarian moral fable.

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November 08, 2008

Chapter 2 (Pen-pals)

正寝 [せいしん] Seishin ("true sleep"); the main buildings of the Inner Palace complex (Naiden) that house the living quarters
外殿 [がいでん] Gaiden ("outer palace")
後宮 [こうきゅう] Koukyuu ("the palace at the back")
塙果 [こうか] Kouka; the ranka bearing the next kirin of Kou

Youko first meets Rakushun in chapter 35 of Shadow of the Moon, and Shin (槙) County is first mentioned in chapter 37. Shoukei complains bitterly about being given the name "Gyokuyou" in chapter 4 of A Thousand Leagues of Wind. The coronation ceremony Youko mentions takes place in chapter 7.

Era names are still used in Japan. The current era is Heisei and dates from 1989 (year 1). The era name Youko chooses is Sekiraku (赤楽), seki meaning "red" and raku being the first character in Rakushun's name.

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November 05, 2008

Obama City

I got a little nervous last night--not because of the election results: I live in Utah's third district, after all--but because NHK's normal programming was preempted to carry live coverage of the U.S. election. I was worried that Dan Dan was going to get preempted as well. I gotta have my daily Asadora fix! Thankfully it wasn't. Priorities, you know.

Then at the top of the next hour, there was another additional thirty minutes of coverage added to the regular noonday (Japan time) newscast, up until Obama's election became a mathematical certainty. Consider, in comparison, that a month ago, the election of Taro Aso as Japan's prime minister got at best a passing mention in the U.S. media.

Recently, NHK's delightful science program Tameshite Gatten! ("Science for Everyone") followed the "mackerel highway" from Kyoto to Obama (小浜), which is, of course, getting a lot of free press these days (in Japanese, obama means "small seashore"). Wednesday morning, the town turned out to celebrate! Here's the city's website in English.

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November 04, 2008

Welcome to the virtual DMV

A year or so ago I lauded the Utah County DMV as "the friendliest and most efficient arm of government I regularly come into contact with." My brother suggested I try registering my car online next time. Well, I did, and talk about quick and easy! Utah does a dang good job at this type of thing. If you want to make government truly efficient, make it small, fast, simple, and local. My election day message.

Oh, I voted on one of those evil Diebold machines. Very nice, actually. For philosophical, psychological and scientific purposes, though, I'd like it to print out a human-readable, machine-scannable ballot that could be statistically sampled against the end results as a matter of course, and rescanned in the case of a recount. Dropping a ballot into a box is much more satisfying than just pressing a touch screen.

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November 01, 2008

Chapter 1 (Pen-pals)

The Japanese title is "Shokan" (書簡), meaning a letter, note, or epistle. This story was covered in part by the NHK anime series.

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