October 30, 2009

Angsty angst ruins everything

As an addendum to my previous post, here Alfred (from Batman) gets to the heart of the matter (he's pretty much quoting C.S. Lewis verbatim):

Another good summation of the problem by Steve Sailer:

People used to like to read short stories because each one was a story and it was short. Now nobody reads short stories except other short story writers. And the stories always end with an "epiphany" in which the main character realizes his life is hopeless, as utterly doomed as, say, the contemporary short story author's life.

As a case in point, Chase's self-absorbed and depressing angsty angst on House is a slow-moving train wreck that as far as I can tell is only being dragged out in order to induce some ratings-inspired rubber-necking. But it's making me reach for the remote.

Long-running series get into this fix when they run out of new ideas and turn progressively soapier. My rule of thumb: the conflicts of the secondary characters shall never be more compelling than those of the main character for longer than a single show.

If they're trying to write Chase out of the series (which raises the same question I had with Eric Millegan on Bones--they handily got rid of him once, so why bring him back just to bury him again?), then get a move on. It's bumming me out. Worse, it's boring.

Related posts

Writing to be read
The conservative hero
Good books don't have to be hard

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October 28, 2009

The illusion of authorial control

In a discussion of L'Engle's memoir Walking on Water at A Motley Vision ("We live under the illusion that if we can acquire complete control, we can understand God, or we can write the great American novel"), Patricia comments, "And this is why art as self-expression is art of a lesser light."

I've come to a similar realization recently. Maybe it comes with passing the half-century mark, but I find I've grown tired of angst and self-revelation. What I really want to do is tell an entertaining story, and better it be trashy than chock full of earnest "meaning."

This is what I think Robert McKee is getting at: the artistic import you're striving for is never so grand that you can dispense with story. The story is in control, not your deep thoughts, and you must be prepared to move your ego out of the way and let it go charging on through.

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October 21, 2009

Gang rule

Japanese television has a whole genre devoted to the revenge drama. It might more accurately be described as the "all your problems can be solved by beating the crap out of somebody" genre. The show must feature a bunch of loser teenage rebels without a cause and/or an ex-yakuza or ex-gang member who's "gone straight" but isn't above using his (or her) fists and past criminal connections to see wrongs righted.

Gokusen is a high school melodrama in the Dragon Zakura vein, casting a woman in the in loco parentis role. Kumiko Yamaguchi, the daughter of a yakuza crime family, becomes a teacher in the roughest, toughest school in town. What make the manga and anime great are her efforts to "go straight" while not abandoning her past, and her ability to outsmart her scheming students as well as outfight them.

The television series, though, quickly falls into a repetitious rut where a bunch of teenagers—as mind-numbingly stupid as they are violent—get themselves into serious trouble every week and their teacher bales them out in an identical—and eye-rollingly implausible—fight sequence every week.

But, hey, what do I know—the third and most painfully tedious season was the year's highest-rated drama series. But the manga and anime versions give Kumiko a far more interesting character arc as she struggles to reconcile her yakuza princess and school teacher roles.

Salaryman Kintaro moves Gokusen into Japan's business world. Anybody who crosses Kintaro or his company gets whupped. And there's somebody crossing them—resorting to extortion, assault, murder, arson, bombing—every darned week. Beyond the absurd plot turns and scenery-chewing acting, Salaryman Kintaro distills down to something between adolescent cliffhanger melodrama and violence porn.

Seriously, I don't get this attitude where showing an attractive naked woman is verboten (Japanese television has actually grown more conservative in this regard over the past quarter century), but beating somebody unconscious is prime time excitement.

The Rookies wants to be the baseball version of Dragon Zakura, except that with all the teenage gangbangers (identified as anybody with spikey dyed hair and tons of angst) on the team constantly going off on each other, the question is how they manage to field a team. The lesson, as Salaryman Kintaro proves, is that with a big enough animal id, you can recover from any life-threatening injury in a week.

The best of the bunch so far is Yasuko and Kenji. The goofy premise has ex-biker gang leader Kenji (Masahiro Matsuoka) abandoning his old life and becoming a manga artist to support his kid sister (Mikako Tabe). Tabe and Matsuoka possess honest-to-goodness comic chops, and the story is funny and inventive. But even that can't stop the contrived fight scenes from getting boring and repetitious.

Period dramas can't resist the formula. The Killers is about, well, a bunch of "good guy" killers, a star chamber like the gang led by David Soul in Clint Eastwood's Magnum Force. It's got a decent cast (Masahiro Matsuoka gets to ham it up some more, though not as much as in Yasuko and Kenji) and great costumes. But what it boils down to is a bunch of nasty people being better off dead every week.

This is not a recent development. From 1962 to 1989, Shintaro Katsu made twenty-six Zatoichi films (including Zatoichi meets Yojimbo) and a two-year television series. A well-received 2003 revival cast Takeshi Kitano in the lead. Each Zatoichi installment involves the titular character running into a gang of ne're-do-wells who need themselves some killin' and who get their comeuppance by the time the credits start to roll.

The movies are made watchable by Katsu's acting and the twists and turns in the subplots. The same can't be said for the dozens of B-grade copycats spawned during the same period (some of which were made by Katsu himself), which compensated for a lack of creativity with sex, nudity, and buckets of fake blood.

"Getting even" seems a sure-fire formula in Japan. But watch too many of these shows—practically anything from the insanely prolific career of Takashi Miike (a major inspiration for Quentin Tarantino)—or simply the nightly news, and you can start believing that Japan is a crime-ridden no-man's-land straight out of The Road Warrior.

When it's still one of the calmest countries on the planet.

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October 19, 2009

Bilingual golf

Following up on Thursday's post about "borrowed" English words in Japanese, NHK covered the Japan Open over the weekend. Here's a list of English words (pronounced using Japanese phonetics) I heard after watching for about an hour, after which I gave up keeping track.

chance/big chance (as in: "He's got a birdie chance.")
nice (as in "Nice shot.")
over/under (for single digits, scores reported using English: "One over," "Three under," etc. I wonder if the dividing line is six.)
par three/four/five (English numbers)
pressure (the commentators loved this word)
shot (English numbers, single-digit)
stroke (English numbers, single-digit)
tee shot
top (of the leaderboard)
try (as in: "Birdie try.")
up/down (as in "He's one stroke down.")

Oh, and the "open" in "Japan Open" is, of course, "open." At least the holes are identified using Japanese numbers and the ban counter (ichi-ban translates as "number one").

A lot of code switching went on with the non-golf terms. "Third shot" in one sentence became "Dai-san" in the next. I wonder if this linguistic "contamination" is endemic to international sports commentary.

Do the French stick to French when they're just winging it? Perhaps such terminology is more accurately described as a pidgin or "trade language":

A simplified language that develops as a means of communication between two or more groups [of people] that do not have a language in common . . . constructed impromptu or by convention.

One other thing I've never seen on the PGA Tour: fluorescent red golf balls. Aesthetically speaking, though, a red golf ball sitting on a green green is harsh on the eyes.

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October 15, 2009

Linguistic heads in the clouds

The Wall Street Journal documents the comically absurd lengths France's General Commission of Terminology and Neology will go to in order to purge those ugly Anglo-Saxon Americanisms from the mother tongue.

Before a word such as "cloud computing" receives a certified French equivalent, it needs to be approved by three organizations and get a government minister's seal of approval, according to rules laid out by the state's General Delegation for the French Language and the Languages of France.

The Japanese, in stark contrast, borrow English terminology with such carefree abandon that at times even I wonder sometimes why they didn't stick to the Japanese equivalent.

Consider the kanji for "out" (外). Appended to the kanji for "appearance" and the compound means "facade." Appended to the kanji for "person" and the compound means "foreigner."

There are thousands of such "外" compounds in Japanese. Still, it is quite convenient, especially considering the surfeit of homophones in Japanese, to have "out" words whose meanings is confined to a specific cultural context.

The English "out" (アウト) was imported with foreign sports popular in Japan: an "out" in baseball, a ball that is "out" in tennis, the "out nine" (and "in nine") of a golf course. And spread like wildfire. Used as a standalone word, a suffix and a prefix, Eijirou comes up with 1040 corpus citations.

In Japanese, though, the phonetic "spelling" of kana forces a vowel after every consonant (except /n/), and thus distorts the pronunciation of "borrowed" words so much that they are mostly unrecognizable to foreign ears.

But here the French simply need to understand that any Anglo-Saxon word spoken with a sufficiently snooty French accent will be assumed to have been etymologically French all along. Voilà! Problem solved!

By the way, "cloud computing" in Japanese is "kuroudo konpuutingu" (クラウドコンピューティング).

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October 12, 2009

Somebody knows something

Kouji Taguchi, a producer at game developer Square-Enix, claimed at a convention appearance that none of their anime products "has lost money in eight years." In the fickle entertainment industry, about which William Goldman famously stated that "nobody knows anything," this is a remarkable track record.

Budgets for television series made in Japan are a third of those made in Hollywood. Hayao Miyazaki makes feature films for a tenth what Disney typically spends. It's the content that's selling, not the wrapper. Taguchi's expertise is making sure the content is delivered to the customers who want to consume it.

Comparing marketing to fishing, Taguchi says that

[I]t is essential for the [production] company to first search for where the fish are (search for a popular genre), then decide on a lure that these fish would like (deciding on the work to adapt), and finally get the fish to bite on the lure (selecting the anime studio).

Making his formula work in the U.S. is more challenging. Manga are twice as expensive in the U.S. as in Japan, making it difficult to achieve volume sales and overcome the narrow margins. Another critical factor explaining lagging manga sales in the U.S. is population density and ready access to retail outlets.

Taguchi observes that a "typical Tokyo resident can reach about three bookstores by bicycle." Consequently, marketers in Japan can use anime to directly push manga sales. In the U.S., the only way to get access to a wide variety of manga is through online bookstores, making impulse sales problematic.

An American kid can't watch an anime and then run out and buy the manga with his allowance. (Incidentally, this is also a product of the schizophrenic attitudes Americans have toward the commercial sector: we claim to want "walkable" communities but are loath to zone for them.)

A bigger problem that Taguchi doesn't touch upon is that U.S. licensing is so haphazard and slow there's often no way that a distributor can count on the anime and manga being available at the same time. However, it is possible that in the future, the "PlayStationing" of manga publishing could alter this equation.

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October 08, 2009

Doctor Heli

A recent episode of The Professionals on NHK World featured an ER doc who works for Japan's helicopter emergency medical service, known as "Doctor Heli" (they use the English words). He flies to the scene and triages and treats on the spot, and then follows the patient all the way through the ER.

The case they followed was a traffic accident victim, and it was more explicit than anything I've seen on American television. The man's blood pressure was rapidly dropping by the time they got him to the ER (about fifty yards from the helicopter pad), so they had to open him up and find the internal bleed.

First surprise: the patient is prepped while the doc scrubs in. Then he gloves up, grabs a scalpel and goes zip. I mean, that fast. Lays the guy open with one swipe. None of this delicate, inching along stuff. I guess you get good at it after a while. But it looked like a butcher slicing open a side of beef.

Second "holy cow" moment: searching through his abdominal cavity for the bleed. Not to be too gross about it, but it looked like a bunch of cooks rooting around in a big bowl of spaghetti, picking up handfuls of intestines and pushing organs out of the way and stuffing in towels to soak up the gore.

Watching the video, the rather aghast interviewer posed the same question I had: "You can do that?" He shrugged. "Sure." Considering how badly boxers and football players pummel each other, and what a gymnast puts her body through on the uneven bars, the human gut can take a lot of abuse.

Third surprise: after the doc fixed the bleed and said "Close him up," a pair of nurses took a big piece of transparent (tinted yellow) adhesive tape--about ten inches wide by a foot long--and literally taped him close. Like a box.

The reason for this became clear a few hours later when his blood pressure didn't rise. He had another bleed. So they just peeled off the tape and rooted around in the spaghetti bowl some more and found the second bleed. The patient was fine after that. It was a truly amazing thing to watch.

Here's a video of a training exercise. Unlike the U.S., with parking lots and wide, four-lane streets everywhere, finding places to land the helicopters is a real challenge.

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October 05, 2009

Speaking truth to (gasoline) power

A recent story on NPR about a bio-diesel project tries its best to sell the eco-utopian vision promulgated by "activist-turned-entrepreneur" Jeff Berman, but points out in the last paragraph that at best they're kinda, sorta breaking even on the investment, and then only because they've been selling food-grade sunflower oil instead.

You can almost imagine the investors listening to the first half of this report with economist Jeff Rubin and skipping out on the second.

Rubin says that when the economy recovers, oil prices will go up and stay up, and in the process restructure our economy and lifestyles. This is a rather obvious point (in other words, the future will look like Japan, where energy already costs a fortune). But with one important exception, I wouldn't bet the farm on the accuracy of the rest his particular vision.

In any case, even higher energy prices would be just as disruptive to society as the scary effects of climate change, not to mention the even scarier means being proposed to prevent it. The consequences of our "good intentions" on developing countries, observes Shikha Dalmia, would be "more awful than climate change's implications--even if one accepts all the alarmist predictions."

In the NPR interview, Rubin seems to be basing his arguments on the price of crude oil, assuming that every other factor in his model will remain static. Because technological trends seem obvious in hindsight, we forget how difficult the economic impact of technology is to predict, especially when it comes to the development of substitute goods and markets.

Reading early Asimov, I'm struck by how very smart people couldn't foresee the transistor--let alone the integrated circuit--even when it was only a few years over the horizon. AT&T had a hard time figuring out what to do with the transistor after its own scientists invented it (Sony did), just as Xerox didn't know what to do with the graphical user interface (Steve Jobs did).

We haven't become any smarter at predicting the future. We just like to pretend we are.

It's equally difficult to predict what technological innovations will fail after absorbing billions in private or public spending (other than "most of them"). We should be cautious about attempting to square the circle just because it hasn't been done before. It probably hasn't been done before for a good reason, like the second law of thermodynamics.

Believing that the government need only throw a few billion at a bunch of designated Really Smart People is a political act of faith masquerading as science. There's no guarantee that your chosen Smart People will be the right Smart People, or that they have the proper goals in mind (other than pocketing more of our money).

The Manhattan Project and the Apollo Program didn't have anything to do with creating economic efficiencies. And while we're at it, the Apollo Program did not create a demand for integrated circuits. The credit for that (in the space industry, at least) goes mostly to the U.S. military, specifically avionics and air-to-air missiles (quantity matters, and there was a war going on).

When building extremely expensive, one-off, manned rockets, robustness is preferred over "new," which is why the Space Shuttle used prehistoric (but hardy) magnetic core memory cells well into the 1980s.

Yes, there's a lot you can do when money is no object. But as Margaret Thatcher put it, "Eventually you run out of other people's money." (Oh, I forgot, we'll just borrow it.) Nor is the government very good at stopping spending on bad ideas. Thanks to the fallacy of sunk costs, every failure is promised by its backers to succeed if only we spend a few billion more.

This has prompted Seth Roberts to coin what he calls "Pashler-Roberts Law": "The more expensive the research, the less likely the researchers will be honest about it." My corollary is that the more expensive the research, the less likely it is that the researchers will ever arrive at a definitive conclusion. Why turn off the spigot on your own gravy train?

Ten years ago the government set out to test herbal and other alternative health remedies to find the ones that work. After spending $2.5 billion, the disappointing answer seems to be that almost none of them do.

Ten freaking years and $2.5 billion--hey, that's cheap for government work. Where there is government, there will be rent-seeking by people who are a lot smarter and craftier than the average politician. This corruption can only be minimized by keeping the government's involvement in commercial activities as small as possible.

Now we face the absurdity of supposedly "private" enterprises threatening to go bankrupt unless the government pays them off. Like a little kid threatening to hold his breath—and it works!

When I was in high school decades ago, two of the "big money" government science projects were the Space Shuttle and fusion energy. Billions later, fusion remains in the research stage. The Space Shuttle made it off the drawing boards, but was far more dangerous and expensive than projected, and never came close to achieving the promised launch schedules or economies of scale.

NASA eventually concluded that spending more money on the program wasn't ever going to improve it, and so it is scheduled to live on only in the Smithsonian.

The "Constellation" program slated to replace it resurrects Saturn/Apollo engine and capsule designs from the 1960s, and couples them with the solid boosters developed for the Space Shuttle in the 1970s and then reengineered after the Challenger disaster. The big selling point of the competing DIRECT architecture is that it would reuse all of the Shuttle booster technology.

So much for going where no one has gone before. Either way, it's going to cost about $40 billion to find out, and the science will be left paddling around in circles for decades. But it's not as bad as the $100 billion International Space Station, so useless that NASA is already discussing "de-orbiting" it by the end of the next decade.

That means burning it up in the atmosphere. Granted, the "international" part appears to work quite nicely. The State Department should pay for it.

Nobody advocating "bet the house" scientific strategies can predict what will happen when we double down, lose big time, and end up with no solution and a few more trillion dollars in debt. Does anybody remember the U.S. Synfuels fiasco? (Yes, I know, it really, really, really will work next time, cross my heart and let the taxpayers pick up the tab.)

Rubin does get one thing exactly right:

Efficiency does not lead to conservation. It is probably the biggest head-fake out there.

In a growing economy, efficiency gains are eaten up by greater use of the resource in question. Increasing automobile efficiency has the same economic impact as lowering the cost of gasoline, which promotes more driving and more highways, which promotes more sprawl and more McMansions in more exurbs, which promotes more fossil fuel consumption.

Houses today are much better insulated, heaters and air conditions are much more efficient than they were a generation ago. Families are smaller. The result? We build bigger houses that are less efficient (vaulted ceilings, large, unified kitchen/dining room/living room/family room areas with central air conditioning). Plus a heated swimming pool in the back yard.

It the behavior, stupid, not the technology. Just because you bought a Prius doesn't mean you're doing anything to save the planet. Popular Mechanics concludes:

Driven hard and recklessly, even a Prius will suck down dead dinosaurs at a furious rate. Driven carefully and with precision, you will find that a Hummer H2 can return something approaching reasonable mileage.

The Japanese don't live in "rabbit hutches" because of "climate change" or drive fuel-efficient cars because of CAFE standards. But because of the sky-high cost of energy and expensive, limited land resources. Japan builds (largely in the private sector) efficient mass-transit systems because of sky-high population densities and mass-transit friendly population distributions.

Size really does matter.

Nevertheless, Japanese who can prove they have a place to park them (a legal requirement) love them their gasoline-powered cars. So do Europeans. The automobile accounts for over 80 percent of passenger miles in western European countries (except for Austria and Ireland at 75 percent). It's a "do as we say, not as we do" world.

And even those sky-high taxes and energy prices have to keep pace with a growing GDP, which makes energy continually cheaper on a per-capita basis. When I was living in Japan thirty years ago, most home lighting was the 1970's version of the not-so-compact CFL. Nobody cared about "climate change" back then. The reason was the cost of electricity relative to personal income.

Now with people wealthier, the Japanese government must talk about "incentivizing" demand for CFLs.

If we believe it's up to the government to "engineer" a solution, then we'd better think about what we're asking our politicians to do. The answer is probably a synonym for "when pigs fly." And when Congress dutifully passes legislation forcing those pigs into the air (say, subsidizing hot-air balloons to carry them), think about what will coming raining down on our heads.

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October 01, 2009

Lost and found in translation

My sister Kate has been watching Lois & Clark with the French subtitles turned on. In one scene, Lois is goading Clark to abandon a particular demand, stating that "it will never happen." With added emphasis she asks (hypothetically), "How long can you hold your breath?"

As Lois stomps off, Clark (aka Superman) mutters, "A very, very long time."

The subtitles simply render Lois's questions as "How long can you be patient?" which misses the play on words. Kate asks if there is a French colloquialism that means the same thing, or are translators doomed to miss some jokes when they move from one language to the next?

The question reminds me of a Star Trek TNG episode where the Enterprise encounters an alien race that speaks only in allegory. It's one of those clever but stupid ideas. All language is allegorical. Even mathematicians have to agree on what the symbols mean before they can communicate using them.

Every translation system--human or machine--depends on a corpus of translated material to work from. Granted, in a universe where a "universal translator" is plausible technology, I suppose it makes sense (though in that case, even Douglas Adams's "Babel Fish" would be more scientifically realistic).

In sociolinguistic terms, the episode does make a nice point. Consider the story of Amaterasu and Ame no Uzume. Back at the dawn of time, after the Storm God, Susano'o, went on a holy tear and trashed her temples and fields, the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, shut herself inside a cave, plunging the world into darkness.

Uzume overturned a tub near the cave entrance and began a dance on it, tearing off her clothing in front of the other deities. They considered this so comical that they laughed heartily at the sight. Amaterasu heard them and peered out to see what all the fuss was about.

When deployed metaphorically (such as in the anime Maison Ikkoku), "Ame no Uzume" describes a woman acting sensuously in order to lure somebody (usually a man) out of his metaphorical cave. If the name is meaningless outside Japan, once it's defined in context, it's perfectly understandable.

Human nature is universal enough that in most cases the substance of the metaphor or pun can be translated along with the text. Getting hung up on "close literalism" is the greater obstacle. In my own work, if a metaphor is unique but still understandable, I'll keep it, even if it requires a parenthetical.

Otherwise, my approach is, "How would I phrase this if I wrote it?" I don't mind imprecise translations if they preserve the intent of the writer and the meaning the reader takes away. Often I'll "translate" the image or sense in my mind rather than the words of the metaphor itself.

The translator faces the same literary challenge as the writer. Except that distributors have to expeditiously turn around products at the "good enough" level. Not many have the deep pockets to do what Miramax (thanks to John Lasseter) did with Princess Mononoke, and hire Neil Gaiman to rewrite the script.

Additionally with dubs and subtitles, there's the whole matter of space and time constraints. Sometimes anime DVDs do add liner notes to explain cultural contexts. I like adding footnotes to my translations. It's easy to do online, though I suppose could make genre fiction look too "scholarly" and the typesetting a pain.

Alethea and Athena Nibley (BYU grads) write a column for Manga Life (scroll down to "Words of Truth and Wisdom"), examining the nuts and bolts of translation. In this interview, for example, they 'fess up to confusing "Aegis" as a type of cruiser (specifically the weapon system) with the name of a cruiser.

Translators have to know what the author knows. Here is a sentence I translated from Yashakiden: "These Magnum revolvers had a double-action trigger pull of seven pounds, with four pounds in single action." The grammar is straightforward. The challenge was to phrase it the way a gun expert would in English.

I was vaguely aware of the term "trigger pull," but googled it to see how it was actually used in context. (Google and Google Books are the translator's best friend. I'll often translate a complex sentence, stare at it and wonder, Does anybody actually say that in English? and google it to see.)

So I sympathize with subtitle translator Natsuko Toda--often given only a week or two to crank out the raw copy--whose work on Lord of the Rings provoked storms of protest. She simply didn't have the time to familiarize herself with the source material enough to capture its subtleties to the satisfaction of the fans.

The other lesson here is to avoid translating stuff when the fans know the story better than you do even before seeing it.

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