August 30, 2010

Trash-talking time

Pulling himself out of a self-imposed exile after being implicated in campaign finance shenanigans (but not charged), former Japan Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa tested the political waters last week for a possible battle with Prime Minister Naoto Kan over party leadership. Among other things, he said:

I like Americans, but they are somewhat monocellular. When I talk with Americans, I often wonder why they are so simple-minded.

Nobody's sure what he meant by that--he offered no examples--especially since Japan's financial meltdown during the 1990s was handled even less competently than the U.S. government's efforts now (hard to imagine, but true), and "simple-minded" perfectly describes the previous PM from his own party.

Yukio Hatoyama resigned after failing to close the Futenma U.S. airbase on Okinawa. It was a big part of his campaign platform, but the goal he set was physically impossible, especially as timetables had already been set in 2006, and such a huge logistical undertaking that can't exactly be hurried along.

I agree with him on principle that the U.S. military footprint in Okinawa (and South Korea) should be drastically reduced, but there is this thing called the real world. (Stars and Stripes has a good summary of the issue here.)

Hatoyama seemed to believe that if he was only earnest enough, Futema would sprout wings and fly itself to Guam. Or maybe he thought such promises would be treated as seriously as Obama's to close Guantanamo Bay. Alas, the electorate took him at his word. His Dan Quayle-like public persona didn't help.

However brilliant he might be, he often came across as a space cadet. Kan, his replacement, previously the finance minister, seems better suited for the job. Japanese voters may have grown weary of the ham-fisted, Chicago-style politics of Ozawa, but they do appreciate hard-nosed competence.

At any rate, a little trashing of America and Americans at this time of year is expected of Japanese politicians, especially from "liberal" DPJ types, who are supposed less America-philic than the "conservative" LDP, though we're mostly talking differences without a distinction.

(Incidentally, "LDP" oxymoronically stands for "Liberal Democratic Party." It is best compared to a bunch of country club Republicans, though after a half-century of almost uncontested power, the LDP now risks dissolving into a motley collection of competing Tea Party-like factions.)

Tokyo mayor (best-selling novelist and polemicist) Shintaro Ishihara has a deserved reputation for waving the nativist and nationalistic flags whenever it suits the political mood. Of course, he never lets the fire-breathing get in the way of actual business, and everybody on both sides of the Pacific just rolls their eyes.

As Peter Payne points out, "Japan is absolutely one of the most pro-American countries in the world."

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August 26, 2010

Swallows and swallowing

Swallow (the bird) and swallow (the verb) have different semantic roots. The words were not homophones in German and Old English, but grew together in Middle English.

swallow (bird): ME swalwe; OE swealwe; G Schwalbe ("swallow," name of the Messerschmitt 262)

swallow (verb): ME swalwen; OE swelgan; G schwelgen (to luxuriate/revel in, feast on); ME (noun form) swalwe (throat, abyss, whirlpool)

What made me curious about this were similarities in the kanji for swallow (bird) and swallow (verb) in Japanese (they're pronounced differently though).

tsubame (bird): 燕
enka suru (verb): 嚥下する

The only difference between the two is the radical for mouth appended to the kanji for swallow (bird). A Japanese friend suggested that because swallows nest around humans, it might have been derived from watching baby swallows feeding.

To be sure, 「嚥」 is rarely used in modern Japanese, with 「嚥下する」 specifically referring to the physiological act of swallowing. 「呑む」 or 「飲む」 (nomu) are far more common.

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August 23, 2010

It's a power law world

Over the weekend, my sister Kate's novella, A Man of Few Words, briefly made it into the top 10,000 in the Amazon Kindle rankings, and into the top 100 in the Kindle Regency category.

Granted, the long tail at Amazon is by now so long that this is the result of selling on average one Kindle book a day for two weeks. Moving into the top 1000 would require selling ten times as many. But you never know!

I'd like to see Amazon plot the Brownian motion out here on the long, long tail, and observe how some titles break away while most others sink into (or stay rooted in) oblivion. It'd make for a fascinating bit of visual modeling.

For the self-pubs, just as with the pros, there's an irreducible complexity at work, the eddies and currents of taste and fickle chance choosing one thing and not the other for reasons that can never be completely fathomed.

Consider that Netflix was willing to shell out a cool $1 million in order to improve its predictive movie matching service a mere 10 percent. (In practice, it reminds me of Word's grammar checker: useful but totally unreliable.)

The self-pub hand-wringers are of the same stripe as those who don't trust Adam Smith's invisible hand because they can't see "how it works," because obviously nothing works without an identifiable brain trust behind it.

Study a little physics, though, and you must quickly come to terms with the fact that the world continues to work just fine even when it is completely incomprehensible.

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August 19, 2010

Born that way

The remarkable thing (for an introvert, at least) about this recent bit of research showing that introverts are biologically "that way" is that anybody ever thought differently.

This is just one more piece of evidence to support the assertion that personality is not merely a psychology concept. [There is a] broader foundation for the behavior that you see, implicating that there are neural bases for different personality types."

Alas, the vast majority of extroverts continue to not only believe that introverts want to be like them, but that they really could be just like them if they only "tried harder."

I couldn't help noticing a derivation of the "Ann Althouse rule" (If it ever seems that men are greater than women, you must look harder until you can perceive that women are greater than men):

The introvert's brain treats interactions with people the same way it treats encounters with other, non-human information [while] human faces, or people in general, hold more significance for extroverts, or are more meaningful for them.

That's right, "people in general" are more "meaningful" to extroverts. In other words, extroverts: good and trustworthy; introverts: weird and scary.

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August 16, 2010

How to live long and prosper

Don't tell anybody you're dead.

I didn't mean you living long and prospering. But your relatives will appreciate the sacrifice on their behalf. This seemed to be what Sogen Kato's family was thinking when he died in 1978. His daughter and son-in-law (now 81 and 83) simply shut the door to his room and never opened it again.

Maybe they were trying to save on funeral expenses (as big a racket in Japan as in the U.S.). And being in a super economizing mode, they continued to live in the same house!

And use his pension as a piggy bank. As they say, if it didn't really happen, people would think you made it up. After repeated attempts to contact him, police were tipped off by a grandchild and found "the mummified corpse of a man, allegedly a shut-in, who would have been 111 years old if still alive."

This set off a nation-wide search, resulting so far in over 100 missing-persons cases for people over 100. Not missing as in they wandered off somewhere, but missing as in there's no evidence they still exist anywhere. In one case, this bizarrely resulted in the opposite situation as the above:

Fusa Furuya is 113 years old and Tokyo's oldest resident. But even though her domicile was transferred to Suginami Ward in 1986, no one clearly recollects when she was last seen, although her daughter has continued paying medical care premiums on her behalf.

A few years ago, the Japanese government lost millions of pension records, again, as in nobody can remember where they put them. The primitive paper reports the U.S. Social Security Administration sends me every year are probably one of the better wastes of taxpayer money. I should save them.

Though if the government had to guestimate my earnings based on medium incomes for my bracket (what they're resorting to in Japan), I'd probably come out ahead.

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August 09, 2010

From rent to own

As depicted in the autobiographical Asadora series Ge-Ge-Ge no Nyoubou, Shigeru Mizuki began his career in the 1950s writing for the kashihon (貸本) or "rental book" market, basically small for-profit libraries. He scraped by as a starving artist this way for a decade.

Incidentally, the series shows Mizuki encountering the same comics-are-evil protests during this period that practically destroyed the comic book industry in the U.S. Fortunately for him, as the "rental library" business dried up, so did the protests.

(Bookstores in Japan today do have to distinguish between manga that can be sold "unrestricted" to all customers and those essentially kept "behind the counter." Though those standards are way, way, way more permissive than in the U.S.)

Or everybody was too busy growing the GDP at double-digits to care. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics is seen as the turning point, when all that growth began compounding vigorously. The baby boom kids could afford to buy manga magazines rather than rent manga books.

In 1964, Mizuki was "discovered" by publishing giant Kodansha's Shounen Magazine. He rewrote and relaunched two of his kashihon series--Akuma-kun ("Devil Boy") and Ge Ge Ge no Kitarou--both of which became television series (live action and anime).

In what-goes-around fashion, the kashihon store has been more recently resurrected as the manga kissa, a coffee shop stocked with manga that can be read at the patron's leisure for an hourly cover charge. (Or for that matter, Blockbuster and Netflix.)

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August 05, 2010

House meets Black Jack

What do you get when a fictitious character played by a real person (though not using his real accent, and then dubbed in a completely different language) is promoted in Japan by a fictitious character who is totally virtual?

Dr. House (played by British actor Hugh Laurie) and Black Jack will appear together in a television commercial, which will be the first collaboration between an overseas live-action television series and a Tezuka anime.

The caption at the top reads: "Don't the two of us resemble each other?"

Black Jack is the creation of manga pioneer Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989). Like Michael Crichton, Tezuka earned an MD but never practiced. Black Jack is a bad boy black market surgeon and his medical cases are more Crichton (and Raymond Chandler) than House.

House, to his credit, actually has a medical license, or doesn't (technically) practice without one.

You can watch the season four promos here (click on the red buttons; video may take a minute to buffer). From left to right: the "normal" TV spot, the Black Jack TV spot, the Black Jack extended version.

You can watch the season three promos here (TV and extended versions). More material with which to debate the dubbing choices.

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August 02, 2010

Demographics (and manga)

General Electric modeled worldwide demographic trends starting in 1950 and projecting through 2050 and came up with the following.

Among other things, scrolling along the timeline clearly reveals Japan's short-lived, post-war baby boom and its echo. The U.S. counterpart peaked a decade later and practically spans an entire generation between Japan's boom and echo.

The first boom (among other things) energized the manga industry (and popular culture in Japan) in the 1960s when the boomers hits their teens. The echo a quarter-century later turned anime and manga into a billion dollar industry.

But now with the birth rate falling below replacement, a tertiary echo is not appearing and the audience is aging out of the market. A sign perhaps of things to come. I guess it's time to invest in medical robots.

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