January 31, 2011

Japanese hybrid

Language is a good measure of cultural influence. English, for example, has the Norman Conquest (plus Latin and the Vulgate) to thank for all the high-brow French cluttering up the low-brow Anglo Saxon, which is Germanic in origin.

A thousand years ago, Japan saw itself in the mirror of China, which unfortunately resulted in the adoption of kanji, even though the languages have nothing in common. A hundred years ago, it patterned its social institutions after Europe. Now it sees itself in the mirror of the United States.

As was recently pointed out on NHK's Nihon-GO! pop-linguistics program, based on a sample of unabridged dictionaries, over the past fifty years, the number of foreign cognates in Japanese--mostly from English--has risen from a few hundred to over ten thousand.

Even I find myself saying at times, "There's a perfectly good Japanese word for that." Although on the aforementioned show, 70 percent of those polled concluded it wasn't worth trying to come up with a substitute for "hybrid [car]" (ハイブリッド), despite not knowing what "hybrid" meant. How many people know what "MP3" stands for?

Then a few days later, NHK's version of Nightline did a show on the "Tsuittaa (ツイッター) Revolution." Sound it out! In the Twitter glossary here, only three terms ("Trending Topics," "Favorites," "Via") contain any native Japanese.

Unlike the French, while professional worriers may wring their hands about it, and now and then an indignant politician demands to know why a political platform is called a "manifesto," once a word comes into vogue, most Japanese don't care to inconvenience themselves enough to get rid of them.

A big reason for this is that katakana works like a kind of cryptographic hash function. Even words that make it through unscathed phonologically, like "manifesto," are still rendered indecipherable to most foreigners (マニフェスト), making them unmistakably Japanese.

Even so, especially in academic contexts, these English cognates have gained the kind of intellectual panache that French once had, setting up a tension represented by the two phonetic scripts, katakana (used to write cognates) and hiragana (used to write native Japanese).

Recently on the serial drama Teppan, Akari was getting advice about how to run her restaurant from a young MBA-type, who peppered her lecture with confusing (to Akari) English business terms until Akari's grandmother snapped, "Quit talking in katakana! You're Japanese! Speak in hiragana!"

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January 27, 2011

Embracing rejection

Why you should submit your MS to the Journal of Universal Rejection (these rules apply equally when it comes to agents and traditional publishers too):

• You can send your manuscript here without suffering waves of anxiety regarding the eventual fate of your submission. You know with 100 percent certainty that it will not be accepted for publication.
• There are no page-fees [common practice with academic journals; a sure sign of unscrupulous behavior anywhere else].
• You may claim to have submitted to the most prestigious journal (judged by acceptance rate).
• The JofUR is one-of-a-kind. Merely submitting work to it may be considered a badge of honor.
• You retain complete rights to your work, and are free to resubmit to other journals even before our review process is complete.
• Decisions are often (though not always) rendered within hours of submission.

And while I'm taking pot shots at the old publishing paradigm, books like this should put the tired old "rigorous editing" claims by the "big six" six feet under as well.

General Motors, [the author] writes, was bought by Fiat, "an event unimaginable just a couple [of] years earlier." Yes, and it still is: the Italian carmaker did not purchase GM, but a 20 percent stake in Chrysler. France gets "almost 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear sources." The OECD says the figure is close to 80 percent.

Ms Moyo’s editors are as bad as her fact-checkers. If they couldn’t spot the analytical flaws, they might have done something about the stylistic ones that range from curious analogies to long phrases in parentheses. End notes are used almost at random.

And that's a non-fiction tome. In any case, one long-needed change that ebooks should bring about is treating the written word the same as software. You can fix a typo on Smashwords in an hour, 24-48 hours on Amazon, and it doesn't cost a thing.

The Kindle has a built-in dictionary. How about a built-in ebook updater and typo reporter? Crowd-sourced editing can be very effective (though such efforts will constrained by the power law paradox that attends any shareware project).

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January 24, 2011

The conservative hero

Kate commented a while back (also here) about what makes a good hero:

1. The hero is confident in a nonchalant way.
2. The hero has a sense of humor.
3. The hero respects women without putting them on pedestals.
4. The hero know himself.
5. The hero is loyal and [can be counted on to] stick around.

I'd like to add one more to the list:

6. The hero is a conservative.

Now, I don't mean in the "votes Republican" sense, though as with Michael J. Fox's Alex B. Keaton and William Shatner's Denny Crane, that can work in the hands of a talented actor, even if he's a liberal at heart. I mean in the William F. Buckley sense:

A conservative is the fellow standing athwart history yelling "Stop!"

The hero knows there are things in life—from the past as well as the present—worth conserving: institutions and relationships, beliefs and traditions, manners and protocols, the way things are simply done. And these do not easily yield to fashion, trends, or political correctness.

The reason that cops, lawyers and forensic scientists populate television dramas is that these professions are inherently conservative. They have traditions and procedures, the scientific method and the rule of law. And following them can at times put the hero at odds with his ideals.

But violating them will definitely get him into trouble with society, the people who sign his paycheck, and his conscience.

For all his free-wheeling ways, House is a tenacious—even fanatical—empiricist. Every cause has a discernible effect. All consequences can be traced back to a set of precipitating actions. "After eliminating the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, is the truth."

And no matter how grudgingly, he goes through channels, even if he has to lie and cheat to do so. He can only do the work he wants to do in the institutional setting of a hospital. Rock, meet hard place. But as Kate puts it, "It actually is harder to color inside the lines." Conflict!

Captain Picard always seems to me to be bucking for a job as U.N. Secretary General. But he does have a irrational devotion to the Prime Directive. Lo and behold, conflict! Though I wish the writers would have made Picard pay a much bigger personal price for this devotion.

Finally in First Contact, Patrick Stewart showed that with the right material he could chew through the scenery like the good Captain Ahab he should have been all along.

No man is a machine. The educated mind wars with mindless instinct. Freedom battles with the rule of law, improvisation with by-the-book, the truth versus the facts, what is legal versus what is right. Perhaps this tension is best summed up by FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth:

I love this country, you know, but I'll tell you something. If I was working law enforcement back in the day when they threw all that tea in the harbor, I would have rounded everybody up and we'd all still be English.

Consider the Stargate episode where the team encounters a Guns of the South situation (in which apartheid-era South Africans travel back in time to arm the Confederacy with 20th century weapons). Except in this case SG-1 runs into them during one of their expeditions.

At first, arguing that sure, they're SOBs, but their our SOBs, Colonel O'Neill insists that the needs of Earth outweigh the moral compromise (the ends justify the means). This creates conflict with Carter and the politically-correct Daniel Jackson, who take the high ground.

O'Neill comes around in the end (there really isn't any doubt). But if O'Neill's initial position isn't convincing made, and Richard Dean Anderson couldn't deliver it in a convincing manner, the drama would have ended up as a mush of shallow moralizing with strawman opponents.

Writers can't fall back on the institutional conservatism and forget that the hero has to internalize these values to a certain extent in order to survive (or become a functioning sociopath, which gives us Dexter).

One reason I think Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz are given producer credits on Bones (besides revenue sharing) is so they can defend their characters from writers who would try to turn them into conventional liberals who, you know, think the same way hip Hollywood writers think.

It's the "I don't know anybody who voted for Nixon" syndrome (when Nixon won by a landslide). At least this is my explanation for those awful, politically correct scripts that pop up every now and then on NCIS.

But NCIS remains the most popular one-hour drama on television precisely because it gets one thing exactly right: Leroy Jethro Gibbs as the personification of Semper Fi conservatism.

Even a well-defined supporting character can help stave off these pressures. For example, Linda Hunt as Hetty Lange on NCIS: Los Angeles alone makes the series watchable, as an aging cold warrior adapting to modern times but not leaving the past behind.

Danno on the new Hawaii Five-0 is cast as an old school, Miranda-respecting cop there to steady McGarrett's loose cannon (though that looseness is losing me). The original CSI still has one great ace up its sleeve: Paul Guilfoyle as Captain Brass, a gruff, misanthropic, by-the-numbers cop.

Rex Linn fills a similar role CSI: Miami as Sergeant Frank Tripp, but not quite. For some reason—maybe they didn't want him harshing Horatio's mellow—Tripp is Horatio's subordinate. Thus the institutional check is lost. And so it's pretty much all id all the time.

Even if nobody can be too rich or too thin or too underdressed in the Hollywood version of reality—your protagonist can be way too cool to be believable.

As Margaret Thatcher said, "The facts of life are conservative." A hero—even in the most fantastic of fantasy lands—must be a stubborn realist about life and human nature.

Related posts

Angsty angst ruins everything
Writing to be read
Good books don't have to be hard
Dramatic conservation

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January 20, 2011


If you're a fan of aging rockers (quickly scanning my CD and MP3 collections, it appears that the minimum age of the typical front man is well past fifty), look no further than Kouji Tamaki and Anzenchitai ("Safety Zone"). A good collection to start with is Anzenchitai Complete Best.

I got interested in them after seeing a reunion special last year on NHK, though the comeback tour has reportedly been frustrated on occasion by Tamaki channeling Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart. In any case, as illustrated below, his younger, energetic self has been preserved for all time.

They started out doing fusiony rock and drifted into wall-of-sound pop. If you're hip, this is called "selling out." But I'm not hip. (Aside from "Hell, Yeah," I prefer older Neil Diamond covering middle-aged Neil Diamond and not the recent stuff when critics decided he was "hip" again.)

Related posts

Border Reiver
Kazumasa Oda
Eikichi Yazawa

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January 17, 2011

As strange as fiction

"Write what you know," goes the writer's mantra. Good advice, but the self as a resource has it limits, and sometimes you have to write what you don't and trust your research, your instincts, and your editor (Beth Bentley, in this case).

Still, it's always reassuring when you stumble across a real example of something you made up. In this case, a scene in The Path of Dreams that has Elly going to Planned Parenthood presaged this real-life article in the New York Times, and even strikes a similar philosophical note at the end.

From "Single, Female, Mormon, Alone" by Nicole Hardy:

And that brought me to tears, sorrowful for the ways in which we all suffer, in whatever ways we do, and grateful for the unlikely refuge [offered by Planned Parenthood]. Grateful also for the safety granted my own tears, prompted by the delicate weight of a hand on my shoulder, the warmth of her palm against my back.

How unprepared I was to experience tenderness in the place I had been warned so vehemently against. How unprepared for the flood of relief, the bud of hope, after a life devoted to keeping myself separate from my body. Here was a path, an opening; here was empathy.

From The Path of Dreams:

At the back of her mind—perhaps because of the association with female reproduction—she had made a connection between Planned Parenthood and Relief Society. The difference was, Planned Parenthood only cared about Elaine Packard, here and now. Nothing else. Her soul was her own business. And so the unexpected answer came to her in this atmosphere of nonjudgmental amity, so casually that at first she thought she was lying. But she knew she couldn't lie that glibly.

An hour ago, she couldn't have explained what she was doing there. Now she knew exactly what she was doing there, and for that she was truly and deeply grateful.

If you're not Mormon, I'd recommend reading chapter one of The Path of Dreams to put Hardy's article in context.

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January 13, 2011


Penn Jillette rants about the basic problem with giving the government more power to make us better people and the world a better place. Yes, he belabors the point, but in the process articulates well the fallacy of the "indispensable man" (language NSFW).

I just started translating Demon City Shinjuku. Kikuchi begins with an "indispensable man." The bestest politician that ever was, the "savior of the universe" (as Queen would put it). Thankfully, he's hustled off stage once his fate gives the superhero and the supervillain something to fight over.

The inexorable tides of history and the very future of the world resting on the shoulders of one man is a reliable plot device. In real life, it'd be absolutely terrifying. The problem with Napoleonic figures is they tend to end up like, well, Napoleon, crowning themselves emperor and invading Russia.

In other fictional realms, statist technocrats like Thomas Friedman are drawn like moths to the flame to the "indispensable bureaucracy." It's China now. It was Japan thirty years ago. But then Japan crashed and burned, largely because things too good to be true are, and things that can't go on forever won't.

No matter how indispensable.

The strength of federalism is not that it guarantees collective success. Far from it. Anything run by humans will constantly fail. What's important is that it not all fail at the same time. Better a system that muddles through over one that performs brilliantly right up to the moment it catastrophically self-destructs.

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January 10, 2011

Nasty and personal

Naive nostalgia about how supposedly high-minded political debate used to be doesn't help to raise the quality of the national discourse. The language used by our Founding Fathers during election campaigns--you know, the ones who wrote and ratified the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights--was as vitriolic as anything spoken or written today. Those men knew, first hand, that there would be no need to expressly protect the right to free speech in a democracy if the majority of voters didn't find that speech expressly offensive in the first place.

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January 06, 2011

Impressing the right people

Seth Roberts observes that too often scientists publish papers to impress their colleagues, not to advance the science.

Scientists want to be impressive. They want to impress lots of people--granting agencies, journal editors, reviewers, their colleagues, and prospective graduate students. All this desire to be impressive gets in the way of finding things out.

He draws a connection to best-selling author James Patterson, who says of his writing, "I don't believe in showing off. Showing off can get in the way of a good story." It also gets in the way of communicating with the reader.

This New York Times profile of Patterson makes me like him a whole lot--even though I don't think I've read any of his books--because it's clear that he respects his readers and the kind of books they like to read.

If you want to write for yourself, get a diary. If you want to write for a few friends, get a blog. But if you want to write for a lot of people, think about them a little bit. What do they like? What are their needs?

What we like and need is a good story, so much we'll read bad books to get them. And put up with typos and bad grammar to get them. Yet when all the ingredients come together, we can't eat just one, even if they're all the same.

Related posts

Elmore Leonard's rules of writing
Robert McKee's "Story"

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January 03, 2011

Border Reavers

I'm good at getting stuff after it's marinated in my brain for a while. Unfortunately, this sometimes takes years. Take the Reavers on Firefly.

The Reavers live on the edge of the human-controlled binary solar systems, rarely venturing deep into occupied space. As a result, most of inner worlds and many Alliance officials believe them to be myths made to cover for violent criminals. Reavers are known to capture ships and raid colonies on the edge of populated space.

The other day, I was listening to the first track on Mark Knopfler's Get Lucky CD, "Border Reiver." And it clicked. I was vaguely familiar with the meaning of reave [Old English reāfian] is actually the more common English term, reive being chiefly Scottish.

reave — verb (reaves, reaving, reaved, reft)
1. to carry off (property, prisoners, etc) by force
2. See also reive: to deprive; strip

But the historical usage is what brings Whedon's adoption of the term alive.

Border Reivers were raiders along the Anglo–Scottish border from the late 13th century to the end of the 16th century. Their ranks consisted of both Scottish and English families, and they raided the entire border country without regard to their victims' nationality. Their heyday was perhaps in the last hundred years of their existence.

Drawing these kinds of human connections in futuristic world building is what makes good fantasy and space opera great. Joss Whedon is one smart guy. Firefly was one great television series.

Related posts

Kazumasa Oda
Eikichi Yazawa

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