June 28, 2010

The slush paranoia monster

Over at the TeleRead blog and artsy sites like Salon, a common "worry" (of the concern troll kind) is that that "self-publishing will turn the Internet into one huge slushpile." Hence the need to "come up with a solution" (that hopefully involves securing cushy jobs for wise gatekeepers like us).

This sort of hand-wringing amuses me. Does the music industry spend much time fretting about all those garage bands and (very well equipped) basement studios? Do professional sports leagues complain about the NCAA? Does the NCAA wail about all those mediocre high school athletes they have to sort through? Who have no realistic chance of going pro?

Well, at least their parents and friends love them. That's pretty much the audience for most "professionally" published work too.

Comiket, the world's largest comic book convention (35,000 sellers, 500,000 attendees), is entirely devoted to doujinshi, or self-published manga. It's seen by mainstream publishers in Japan as a net plus, a venue to discover new talent and genres (like the NCAA and the minor leagues). So they ignore all the copyright violations in the fan fiction.

Ask yourself how the average kid attending Comiket decides to spend his limited time and money. Therein lies the answer.

The underlying fallacy here is that every individual decision matrix is based on the total possible output from an industry. It's hip these days to fret that we're faced with an "oppressive" abundance of choices. But if that's the case, then with 6.8 billion people in the world, how would anybody ever decide to settle down with anybody? Dumb question, right?

(Okay, perhaps not the best analogy, as some of us don't.)

Netflix's 100,000 titles don't overwhelm me because I ignore the other 99.99 percent. Ditto my satellite service (I actually pay for only one channel). The grocery store. The Internet. I read blogs that are hyper-specific to my particular tastes and buy from hyper-specific retailers. This is crowdsourcing 101 in action. The size of the crowd doesn't matter.

In fact, when it comes to trusting the purely subjective opinions of others, the smaller and more intimate and more specialized the crowd the better.

People preselect as a matter of course. We're choosy about everything. It's human nature. Common sense, the wisdom of crowds, power law distributions, long tails, and Adam Smith's invisible hand nicely do their work when left alone. The trouble usually starts when "experts" get it into their heads that it's their duty to police the market "for our own good."

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June 24, 2010

The Village

Another in my series of old reviews about old movies, so note the parentheticals.

The only surprising thing about The Village is that so many critics were apparently surprised by the ending. I'd have a hard time imagining how it could have ended otherwise. After all, of M. Night Shyamalan's films to date, only Unbreakable boasts a narrative complexity to match its premise. Otherwise, he has produced some polished Twilight Zone episodes, compelling ideas that may work as extended metaphors but fall to shreds under closer examination.

I can usually suspend disbelief long to enjoy Shyamalan's stories between the opening and closing credits. [Up until Lady in the Water. That was my last Shyamalan, and reviews of Airbender are awful across the spectrum]. The problem is, I'm not sure he always has metaphors in mind. No doubt this literalistic simplicity is part of the attraction. But unless you can impose some deeper level of meaning on the plots, the internal logic evaporates like morning dew in the Sahara.

Speaking of deserts, in Signs, for example, you have to ask why in the world aliens would want to take over rural Pennsylvania, let alone hydrophobic aliens. Why not Nevada? This doesn't simply strain common sense. It takes a wrecking ball to it.

The Village is best interpreted as a Thoreauvian tract on the ideals of (in)voluntary simplicity. If you think such ideas, taken seriously, are cute but batty, then join the group. After all, none the 19th century transcendentalist Utopian communities Shyamalan is mimicking here lasted more than a year or two. The Village, I think quite unintentionally, vividly illustrates why.

To start with, this is apparently a self-sustaining community lacking any recognizable economy, trade or industry--or, for that matter, genetic diversity. The most successful 19th century Utopian movement--the Mormons--similarly attempted to isolate themselves geographically. Despite having a large and growing population and a hundred thousand square miles to work with, the demand for hard currency made trade with the outside world a necessity from the start.

Luckily, the Mexican-American War and the California Gold Rush happened just in time.

Brigham Young still managed to almost bankrupt the state when the financiers of the Transcontinental Railroad pulled a Bernie Madoff on him. He thought he was smart enough to swim with the sharks. They made a minnow out of him. [On Writing Excuses, L.E. Modesitt comments about how the settings for fantasy and science fiction stories so often fail to account for the most basic economic realities.]

The Amish are not an exception. While they separate themselves from the modern world, they exist only by trading with it. The Amish also recognize the truth of the expression, "You can't keep them down on the farm," and lets its young adults exhaust their wanderlust before settling down. Human beings are restless creatures. The idea that you could keep them penned up indefinitely is as fantastic as E.T.s who shrivel like the Wicked Witch when dunked in a fish tank.

The Village is best held up as a cautionary tale far more frightening than monsters and haunted woods. It's the same subtext that comes through loud and clear in glib works of science fiction, Star Trek: TNG perhaps being the worst offender. That is, no Utopian community, high moral claims notwithstanding, can long be maintained, except through fear, ignorance, isolation, and authoritarian rule, with each generation breeding the next class of enlightened despots.

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June 21, 2010

The World Cup (is half empty)

My thoughts on the World Cup after enduring the tedium of watching the U.S. playing the U.K. to a 1-1 tie (by "watching" I mean that the television was on while I did more interesting stuff). I consider myself an objective observer, as my general interest in all sports is minimal at best.

In short: soccer is an art house movie without a plot. You know it's over because it says "Fin" on the screen. (Hockey is an action movie without a plot, and is similarly pointless.) Soccer is what basketball would look like if basketball allowed goaltending and had an offside rule.

The solution (for hockey too) is to eliminate the goalie. "Offsides" would only mean being inside the goal box ahead of the ball (both defense and offense).

Americans being Americans, any sport that penalizes the fast break and the Hail Mary will forever be doomed to the sidelines. Though the real underlying difference is that Americans demand from their sports clear evidence of premeditated thought and a means of incremental evaluation.

A bunch of talented athletes improvising however brilliantly on the spur of the moment is not enough. Like improvisational jazz. Yeah, everybody "admires" improvisational jazz. Nobody actually listens to it.

An overall strategy revealed through well-planned and executed plays is the essence of American football. Americans want to see the generals directing those armies on the "playing fields of Eton," and will judge them by the wars they win. This it is true of baseball, golf, and even NASCAR.

This ability follow the deliberations and judge incremental outcomes is why boring sports like golf and baseball get so much network television coverage. Steve Sailer is spot on that golf courses "look like happy hunting grounds—a Disney-version of the primordial East African grasslands."

Unlike tennis, which stupidly bans the coach to the bleachers. This is why tennis, aside from Grand Slam tournaments, doesn't get much network television coverage. The other being that tennis is a "fast-twitch" sport that depends largely on the other guy screwing up to score. Like soccer.

Basketball hovers halfway between both worlds, which may be why it is the one international "crossover" sport that America shares with the world—fast-twitch but offense-intensive. Plays are expected. Like the double play in baseball, "Stockton to Malone" was a beautiful thing to watch.

And you could expect to see it more than once.

In evolutionary-psych terms, Americans want to see a group of individuals acting as a single team. It's the heart and soul of every classic war movie, the platoon of rugged individualists coming together for the common good. Hence the most cutting criticism of all: "He's not a team player."

Because controlling actual "team play" is impossible in soccer (and hockey), these sports are necessarily about a team acting as a collection of talented individuals. Think of soccer as a way of subverting socialism. And sublimating collectivized religious and nationalistic passions.

Americans are shamelessly patriotic and openly religious (though are more Jeffersonian about it that they'll admit), and so don't really require another weekly groupthink where nothing happens and "all the fun is in getting there" (because there's no actual "there" there).

Getting caught up in the same-only-different drama of the competitive moment is enough. The only true American national theater is the sports stadium, and the one true national imperative is to "Win one for the Gipper."

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June 18, 2010

Elmore Leonard's rules of writing

In this New York Times article from a while back, Elmore Leonard discusses his rules of writing. Here's the one I consider the most important:

• Leave out the parts that readers tend to skip, thick paragraphs of prose [that] have too many words in them.

I know that when I'm translating and I hit those "thick paragraphs of prose," I always groan a bit. And speaking of translating, here's a rule I've come up with recently:

• Don't write stuff that will drive your translator up the freaking wall.

Granted, we're in "do as I say" territory. But exceptions only prove rules by being exceptional, and yours and mine probably aren't. As my brother reminded me recently, it all comes down to:

• Getting rid of everything that gets in the way of the story.

Like that lyrical bit of prose that scans so beautifully (I'm the next T.S. Eliot!), yet on closer examination doesn't really mean anything (again, take pity on the poor translator).

As Philip Pullman has observed, yes, we will put up with bad writing to get to a good story (not the other way around). But why make the reader suffer for the reward?

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June 14, 2010

Where language goes to die

Valiantly defending the value of a liberal arts education in the pages of the New York Times (i.e., dog bites man), David Brooks argues that

Studying the humanities will give you a familiarity with the language of emotion . . . . [E]conomics, political science, game theory and evolutionary psychology . . . are useful in many circumstances. But none completely explain behavior because deep down people have passions and drives that don’t lend themselves to systemic modeling.

It's not clear to me how institutions so reluctant to admit that there is a non-relativistic human nature or that there are non-relativistic universal truths will do any better. Brooks wants secular liberal arts programs to do the one thing they have been laboring valiantly for the past century to not do--preach that old time religion.

You don't need a humanities degree from Harvard to understand why "a governor of South Carolina suddenly chucks it all for a love voyage south of the equator." It's covered in the Bible (for starters), the part about David and Bathsheba. Nor do I find the utilitarian argument any more compelling. Stating the obvious, Brooks says that

[s]tudying the humanities improves your ability to read and write. No matter what you do in life, you will have a huge advantage if you can read a paragraph and discern its meaning (a rarer talent than you might suppose). You will have enormous power if you are the person in the office who can write a clear and concise memo.

Brooks overwhelms me with his low expectations for higher education. Writing a "clear and concise memo" is a subject that should be tackled in high school, or freshman English at the very latest. And according to Oxfordian Helena Echlin, attending graduate school in the U.S. may have exactly the opposite result. No one in her English and American literature classes

mentioned enjoying a book. Analysis is practised completely free of evaluation. Manifestly, analysis is more important than the texts themselves. In a class on The Canterbury Tales, the secondary literature dwarfs the Tales. We are asked to review books on Chaucer, and even review reviews of books on Chaucer. I see an infinite sequence of mirrors into which Chaucer has disappeared.

As far as Echlin is concerned, the study of literary criticism in the Ivy Leagues "is a hoax." She was not allowed graduate credit for a writing workshop taught by novelist Robert Stone ("Having Stone teach literature is like having a gorilla teach zoology"). So she audited the class and learned more from him "than from all my other professors put together."

Yale, she concluded, is "the place where language goes to die" (after emptying your pockets).

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June 10, 2010

Frankenstein and Splice

Reviews of Splice remind me of the similar plot device in Patlabor: W-13 (discussed here), which Germaine Greer also attributes to Frankenstein.

And if you're in the mood for a bit of literary schadenfreude (and you hated being made to read books like Frankenstein back in high school), Greer's article provides a scorching evisceration of the "torpid lit-hist-crit establishment."

Though reading Greer again (as in: "The climactic points of the action remain undescribed, usually because the abnormally sensitive male narrator has fainted or fled or become deathly sick"), I couldn't help thinking of Twilight.

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June 07, 2010

The artist as (a) God(s)

Ruminating a bit more on Mojo's post here about art as a creative act:

When I form people and their worlds, and their characteristics, beliefs, and philosophies, then set them loose to see what they’ll do when I give them a particular set of circumstances, I am not worshipping God. I am God.

Listening to a discussion about Lost (which I have never watched) last Sunday morning on NPR, I again marveled at the penchant we have for endowing with life and agency what Kiefer Sutherland described (Saturday on NPR in regards to 24) as "the fantasy of two writers."

We know full well it's the product of somebody sitting at a word processor (and Avid machine) and pounding on keys. But at the same time, somehow, we don't. And somehow, it isn't.

This strange—probably innate—ability to disassociate creator and creation is yet another reason why atheists will rid the world of God about the same time that the "abstinence only" advocates rid the world of randy teenagers.

But while a rational—though playful and adventurous—God is one thing. A Greco-Roman God that just stumbled out of bed after a weekend-long bender is quite another. As exuberantly entertaining as they can be at times, the inevitable hangovers aren't worth it in the long run.

That's the metaphor that springs to mind whenever I encounter a story in which it becomes obvious that the writer had no idea, starting out, where the whole thing was going to end up (other than face down in a gutter somewhere). "Free" and "undisciplined" aren't synonyms.

My answer to the claim that characters take on a life of their own (which they do) is to say that, even so, the writer is by no means compelled to tell us (or even know) everything they do. This gets back to the age-old teleological debate over agency and omniscience.

So I find it perfectly natural that the most popular narrative style in the western tradition is multiple-viewpoint, limited omniscience. In other words, polytheism with finite gods. Because, as I have Milada explain (an idea that came to me reading The Aeneid):

Rome never fell. We are her children and have inherited all that she was. Her language, art, architecture, politics and governance, her coliseums, her entertainment. Her religion and her gods. Only streamlined, made more efficient, and given new names.

Nicene Christianity is monotheism for people who can't count. Paul wasn't overthrowing a world view so much as he was upgrading it to version 2.0. (This is also why C.S. Lewis is so comfortable populating his stories with pagan characters). As Paul preached in Athens:

I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you (Acts 17:22-23 NIV).

If you like, call it the "federalist" view of the divine (admittedly more Hamiltonian than Jeffersonian).

Though getting back to my writerly analogy, Dick Francis said that he wrote in the first person to avoid POV violations. That's a good reason. And it works for the same reason that strictly monotheistic religions tend towards legalism: the absolute control of the narrator.

Which makes them equally lousy foundations for practical politics without a separation between church and state. In other words, monotheistic creators are fine when you have a whole bunch of them competing with each other and avoiding the rabid fan groupthink thing.

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June 05, 2010

Baseball according to Drucker (3)

Good Morning, Japan reports today that 「もし高校野球の女子マネージャーがドラッカーの『マネジメント』を読んだら」 ("What if the Girl Manager of a High School Baseball Team read Drucker's Management?") has reached #3 on Japan's bestseller list. (See here and here for my samizdat translation of the prologue and chapter 1.) #1 is 1Q84 and #2 is a diet book.

UPDATE: covered in the Economist.

Related posts

Baseball according to Drucker (1)
Baseball according to Drucker (2)
Baseball according to Drucker (4)
Baseball according to Drucker (5)
Baseball according to Drucker (6)

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June 03, 2010

Time and Tide

Based on the title, cover art, its Columbia Pictures distribution, and subtitles, you might assume that Time and Tide is an art theater film, along the lines of Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love (an excessively melancholic, but nevertheless worthwhile, film--and Maggie Cheung is gorgeous throughout).

You'd be wrong. It's a rollicking hoot of a Hong Kong action flick.

The subtitles I certainly appreciate, though they result in some curious incongruities (see below). At any rate, it’d be difficult to dub a yarn this tangled. There's more plot per minute than I think should be allowed by law.

It starts with Tyler (the photogenic Nicholas Tse, also in Gen X Cops), a feckless Hong Kong bartender who, after a drunken on night stand, gets Jo, one of his patrons, who happens to been just dumped by her girlfriend (yes, the pronouns are correct), pregnant.

Nine months later (you saw that coming), in a fit of responsibility, he gets a job with his Uncle Ji in order to support her (though she expresses no interest in him). His uncle runs an unlicensed security firm staffed by debtors who owe his failed loan shark company money. Tyler's not any more qualified than his uncle for working in the bodyguard business, but that doesn't deter either of them.

They get a big job providing security for Hong, a Hong Kong mobster, at his birthday party. Hong's daughter (also very pregnant; that's two very pregnant women if you're keeping count) is married to Jack (Wu Bai), who happens to have been, once upon a time, a hit man for a band of South American bank robbin' mercenaries. These mercenaries, led by one Pablo, have decided to set up shop in Hong Kong, and the first item on the agenda is to take over Hong's operation. They hire Jack to do the hit.

Jack double crosses them and knocks off Pablo instead. Miguel, the vice henchman, vows to hunt him down. Hong, apparently not clued into the double cross (well, he definitely doesn't care for Jack as a son in law), is also gunning for him. And then there's a big suitcase of money in a locker somewhere. (Miguel, for some reason, mostly speaks English--except when he's singing about cockroaches--while everybody else in the gang speaks Spanish.

This must have confused the subtitling guy as well, who subtitles everything, even when Miguel is speaking English.)

Having established all that, the entire second half of the movie involves everybody trying to kill everybody else (running all over a Blade Runner-esque apartment complex), with Tyler stuck in the middle trying to: A) get Jo to like him; B) stay alive, or at least not get the crap beat out of him every five minutes; C) keep Jack's wife alive; D) get his hands on a gun that actually works.

After saving a runaway train, delivering a baby, and wiping out most of the Hong Kong police department, there is a happy, sentimental ending. Okay, it's not great art (though director Tsui Hark has dreamed up some breathtakingly creative action shots), but it is great fun. And thankfully impossible to take as seriously as the title suggests.