June 30, 2011

The weirdest two years

I previously mentioned leaving the really egregious stuff out of my missionary memoir. Here is a glancing summary.

Aside from nineteen-year-olds being their normal idiot selves, and the mission president taking the New York City teacher's union approach (short of felonies being committed, nobody was getting "fired"), the weirdest stuff was ecclesiastical in nature.

Specially, I'm referring to what I describe as the "small district" concept.

Essentially, we created mission-run "districts" within already established wards where we could dump converts (at month-to-month activity rates in the teens), without them showing up on the ward membership roles and incurring the expected pushback.

This practice was far more widespread than I indicate, and was sanctioned up to the GA level. We created a baptism banking bubble and the equivalent of the SEC and the Federal Reserve enthusiastically signed off on it.

To avoid the tackiness of baptizing people in bathtubs, the mission distributed "portable baptismal fonts" (made out of blue plastic tarps and plywood), despite an actual chapel rarely being more than twenty minutes away by mass-transit.

Again, the point was to rack up the numbers without the locals—who would eventually be shouldering the "fellowshipping" responsibilities—getting in the way.

I met very few idealistic missionaries "bending the rules" with naive but good intentions in mind (what Parker and Stone posit). The ones justifying twisted means were doing so in order to accomplish the perverse ends they were called on to achieve.

Or got so burned out and disillusioned they didn't care, and neither did the mission president (as long as they weren't committing felonies). I was too confused to get disillusioned. What killed me was being an introvert trapped in an extrovert's world.

There is a certain bliss that comes from being completely out of your depth. I had a zone leader who got physically ill from the stress. I went with him to Tokyo Adventist Hospital, where he was diagnosed with ulcers, like an overworked Japanese salaryman.

But all bubbles pop and this one barely lasted half a decade.

When I went back to Japan at the end of the 1980s, baptisms had fallen 90 percent. The proselyting techniques we "pioneered" weren't just "discouraged," they were banned. Several missions and hundreds of units were combined or shut down.

Even as the same scams were popping up elsewhere. It's a worldwide game of Whac-A-Mole. And many missionaries can't stop when they get home, which is why Utah is home to so many multi-level marketing empires.

When Japan's real estate bubble burst in the early 90s, all that "Japan as #1" exuberance fell down the memory hole. In an oddly parallel fashion, the church returned as well to the status quo before the craziness began, as if the 1980s were a bad dream.

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June 27, 2011

The "truth" is worse

Jared Farmer's review of The Book of Mormon Musical is one of those overly-analytical approaches that attempts to say more about a subject than the subject deserves, and so ends up being profound about the wrong things.

What he does get right in the process often ends up being right but in the wrong context. Which is not to say that I don't appreciate the effort.

To start with, Farmer is right that Trey Parker and Matt Stone treat the subject with kid gloves. The biggest reason is that they are mocking what they love, or at least like, which should be obvious from this classic Matt Stone quote: "I hate conservatives, but I really [expletive deleted] hate liberals."

Mormons are the kind of white, middle-class conservatives that are safe to dislike without wasting the emotional effort it takes to actively hate something. Farmer correctly concludes that Mormons are the new "retro-cool" group that anybody can make fun of, and Mormons should be very thankful for that.

But he goes off track when he complains that "Most egregiously, the play mischaracterizes Mormon theology," and then spends the bulk of his review telling us why in detail. Except that in a story like this, Parker and Stone only have to be in the ballpark. Getting the "look and feel" right matters a lot more.

In the mission field, the emphasis is on sealing the deal, not wading through the fine print. In places like Japan, where sectarian distinctions pretty much end at distinguishing between Catholicism (that has historical roots there) and everything else, the fine print evaporates into a colorless, odorless mist.

To be sure, Farmer's discussion of the nexus between Mormon theology and popular culture is more interesting than the rest of the review. I'd like to see him tackle the subject at length, quite apart from the The Book of Mormon Musical. But even there he tends to overreach.

Unlike evangelical missionaries who want to save you from going to hell, LDS missionaries want to help you reach your potential in heaven. Mormon eschatology is radically egalitarian, and very American: everyone gets a second chance, everyone wins. It would make a great, cheesy musical number.

Except even most Mormons wouldn't "get it," and those that did would likely be "offended" (meaning, not really, but as a sign of solidarity). Again, for the dramatic goals of this story, it doesn't matter. Getting the theology wrong in The Book of Mormon Musical is like getting the science wrong in Star Wars.

(Though while we're on the subject of accuracy, the rank of "co-senior" was common on my mission. And hell is exactly what is promised a "failed" missionary in Mormon culture. Such fears are in no way invented.)

I'm always amused by critics who care more about Mormon theology than Mormons do. Since such critics inevitably draw a blogospheric reaction from those Mormons who make a hobby of caring (and deeply), the combustible results may suggest that everybody cares, when the church only reluctantly does (in public).

Mormons don't have to care unless they really want to (in their own free time). Mormonism is surprisingly free-thinking in this respect: you can subscribe to almost any theory about God and the universe you want to if you don't (openly) buck authority. The church cares more about your behavior than your beliefs.

Which is why even conservative Christians are coming to the conclusion that Mormons are "mostly harmless." Because, the goofy theology aside, they behave well. When they grow up, at least.

Here's the real "problem" with the musical: based on everything I've read, heard and seen, Parker and Stone depict Mormon missionaries as far more naïve, idealistic, and well-intentioned than about ninety percent of the missionaries I have actually known (including me).

They don't go light on the theology. They go light on the dumb shenanigans Mormon missionaries and their leaders are capable of, that make the vulgar kids of South Park look urbane by comparison. The last thing the church wants is somebody writing a popular play about what really goes on in Mormon missions.

Which, again, makes The Book of Mormon Musical a godsend to the orthodox church. Look! Squirrels!

As cynical as my own missionary memoir is, I wrote it soon after my mission and left out the really weird stuff, mostly because my still-TBM self couldn't process how psychedelically bizarre the experience truly was. But here's an account of the same thing happening halfway around the world a decade later.

The first 15 minutes directly addresses the subject, and again starting at the 36 minute mark.

Imagine if Parker and Stone wrote a musical about that!

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June 23, 2011

This screensaver for sale

Amazon sells a Kindle model called "Kindle with Special Offers." It feeds advertising to the screensaver. My only objection to the idea is that the discount itself isn't enough, though I suspect Amazon is gathering data to justify steeper discounts in the future.

Of course, the hoity-toities who live to be offended by and and all "capitalistic" innovations will take offense (hey, then don't buy one), but this strikes me as a perfectly appropriate commercial activity.

It's the same advertising strategy employed by PBS and National Geographic (the print magazine): content framed by "a word from our sponsors" at the beginning and end. They make it work by running ads that appeal to the intellectual vanity of their audience.

Public radio and television have perfected the art of the non-ad ad. As with movie trailers, it's important to get the right balance so it doesn't become annoying and ruin the "commercial-free" spell. (On second thought, treat movie trailers as a cautionary tale.)

How many high-falutin' literary magazines don't take advertising?

In any case, what are book covers and blurbs but ads? Flipping to the end of a dull reference book I keep next to my desk, I find ten pages of promos. As long as I've been ordering books from Japan, I've been pulling out the blow-ins (and using them as bookmarks).

Advertising is information. Back in the pre-Internet computer magazine days, the ads were where the bleeding edge turned real, where the hypothetical turned into hardware. One reason I visit sites like Anime News Network is to check out the ads in rotation.

So bring it on, Amazon. Get creative. If the customer doesn't like it, you'll find out soon enough. That's what the experiment of capitalism is all about.

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June 20, 2011

Down with literacy

As certainly as the Earth circles the Sun, adults must wring their hands over the ways teenagers choose to entertain themselves. Now some behavior--pretty much anything the average teenage boy thinks is "daring" and "original" and "cool" (in other words, dumb, prosaic, and done because everybody else is doing it)--is worth some wringing of the hands.

Reading definitely ain't one of them.

But Meghan Cox Gurdon, the latest in a long line of hand wringers, worried recently in the Wall Street Journal that YA fiction is "too dark." And, of course, this time it's so bad it's different. Which is another way of saying how special we all are. All those overpraised kids grew up to be adults equally convinced that their problems as parents are superduperspecial too.

If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader--or one who seeks out depravity--will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.

The careless young reader? I can't help thinking of the old joke about how losing one parents is a tragedy, and losing two is just careless. A decade ago, in one of the better treatments of the same subject, Moira Redmond called the genre "Dreadlit," which consists of

utterly unmemorable, dreary, pointed tales in which girls and boys learn their lessons-actual and moral-in the most punishing way possible. What these books resemble most are Victorian tracts: moral tales where every action had to be met with an equal and opposite reaction.

Frankly, I don't care for it either. And frankly, there was nothing new about it then. Even when I was in high school (many, many decades ago), "dark" was treated as a synonym for "literary." Simply consider that Lois Lowry won the Newbery (twice!), not for her much better (upbeat and optimistic) Anastasia and Sam books, but for her "serious" and dystopian stuff.

And so what? Look, if teenagers want to read, let 'em read. A single sentence sums up the well-intentioned but wrong-headed thinking that Gurdon represents: "Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it."

Maybe in the world of moralizing blank-slaters and bottom-line Hollywood producers (a very odd couple). I'm a living experiment, having grown up in a large, conservative family with no television but a love for reading (starting with the Bible), and fairly little supervision of what we checked out of the library (we checked out too many books for our parents to check).

As a result, the entertainment tastes of my siblings have ended up all over the freaking map. No, you cannot dictate taste. And when parents and authority figures stop trying and leave readers to their own devices, they will discover those "created" tastes doing cartwheels and one-eighties all by themselves.

More than anything else, by hating what kids read at their own initiative, this top-down approach (especially in English classes) makes kids hate reading. G.K. Chesterton saw this coming a century ago (in what also turned out to be a prescient description of intellectual attractions of HBO):

It is the modern literature of the educated, not of the uneducated, which is avowedly and aggressively criminal. Books recommending profligacy and pessimism, at which the high-souled errand-boy would shudder, lie upon all our drawing-room tables . . . . [And so] with a hypocrisy so ludicrous as to be almost unparalleled in history, we rate the gutter-boys for their immorality at the very time that we are discussing (with equivocal German Professors) whether morality is valid at all.

This attitude is almost nonexistent in Japan (the stuff that raises hackles there gets people arrested here). For going on half a century, manga and anime writers have been pandering shamelessly to every lowest common denominator that sells to teen males, including the nihilistic existential angst teenagers mistake for profundity. You know, the same way Shakespeare did.

(And that--I'm being perfectly serious--is a big reason why the literacy rate in Japan is so high, despite written Japanese having the world's most complicated orthography.)

The message of Romeo and Juliet, after all, is that hormone-addled teenagers will kill each other and themselves for the dumbest and most arbitrary of reasons. Teenagers think that's cool. They did four hundred years ago. They will four hundred years from now. But here's the thing about teenagers: THEY GROW UP.

At least they do when adults stop creating rebels without a cause by making transitory teenage tastes a world-ending CAUSE. Which, come to think about it, is also the message of Romeo and Juliet.

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June 16, 2011

Another aging rocker

Eikichi Yazawa debuted on the pop charts in the 1970s and rekindled his career in his sixties. He has performed live at the Budokan over a hundred times, a unmatched record.

Incidentally, the Beatles were the first rock group to perform at the Budokan, but the name really entered the pop culture lexicon with the release of Cheap Trick at Budokan in 1978.

Here Eikichi Yazawa appears with guitarist Tomoyasu Hotei.

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June 13, 2011

The E-ink revolution

Legacy publishers and paperback publishers have good reason to be afraid, very afraid. I have finally seen an E-ink screen with my own two eyes.

I have three Kindle emulators/readers and two ePub readers on my computer. I've been coding and publishing ebooks for going on three years. In any case, I'm not talking about reading ebooks. I'm talking about the ebook reader screen.

This isn't some neato-keen gizmo, old technology in new bottles. It really is a paradigm shift.

Mention a grayscale display and I even I can't help thinking of my old Toshiba T1200 laptop with a 640×200 monochrome LCD screen. I'm not alone with this, hence the standard: "Who wants to read a book off a screen?" reaction.

E-ink really is much more like ink than any conventional LCD. To start with, the pixels are white and black--reinforcing the appearance of real paper--not black and "transparent."

My first reaction upon seeing a real Kindle at Walmart was that it was a dummy model plastered with a fake screen decal. I looked closer. I picked it up. It weighed less than a paperback. No, that was the real screen. And it was on.

E-ink is a "passive" technology. If you don't do anything, it doesn't do anything. It doesn't flicker, it doesn't refresh. It just sits there--like print. And uses precious little power doing so.

Press a button, and all those E-ink pixels haul their little butts out of one digital Barcalounger and plop themselves back down in another, which takes much longer than their LCD cousins. Don't expect E-ink video anytime soon.

That and the 16 level grayscale are the current technological limiting factors. Not color. Leave color to tablets for now. The immediate goals of ebook readers should be portability, format universality, and 256 level grayscale.

Plus an intuitive interface (the Kindle interface is a tad overcomplicated) and a price point that turns the product into an appliance and makes it disposable.

Once the book-buying public replaces their outdated assumptions about the capabilities of digital screens with the reality of E-ink, the paperback in particular will go the way of the LP. (And, yes, the LP is still around.)

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June 09, 2011

Scotch tape X-rays

A fascinating lecture on sonoluminescence by UCLA's Seth Putterman, though it's more about several long-observed phenomena that have escaped scientific explanations based on "first principles." One notable example is static electricity, and how there still isn't a good theory for how scuffing your feet generates potentials of ten of thousands of volts. During the Q&A, he gives a tip of the hat to Philo Farnsworth, most famous for inventing television, but who also experimented with fusion.

Perhaps more than anything else, this lecture illustrates the joy a true scientist takes in saying "We don't know," never settling for second-rate explanations simply because the really smart people can't come up with anything better, or because "nine out of ten doctors agree." Science isn't a toothpaste commercial, and the only thing we know for certain is that we hardly know anything at all, except that there's always something more waiting to be discovered. And it's gonna be a blast finding out what it is.

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June 02, 2011

Demon City Shinjuku

My translation of Demon City Shinjuku is off to the publisher (scheduled for release in August). It's an inventive YA thriller with a teenage martial arts superhero and a distinct wuxia twist. It's definitely the most accessible novel I've done for Digital Manga.

Demon City Shinjuku is an omnibus volume. The second novel features as its villain: King Nebuchadnezzar II! And his awful wife, Semiramis (a prototype for Princess). Has anybody cast them in that role lately?

First published in 1982, Demon City Shinjuku was Hideyuki Kikuchi's debut novel. The bulk of his work since has been based in the Demon City Shinjuku universe. The massive Yashakiden series (I'm working on the final volume now) revises and extends the themes he introduces here.

Kikuchi writes near-future fantasy and urban horror (Yashakiden moves from YA into hard-core, Joe Konrath/Stephen King territory), always risky in the prediction department. He generally sticks to monsters and magic, but in a few places the anachronisms start to show up.

I still remember a passage in an Isaac Asimov novel I read as a kid that describes "miniaturized vacuum tubes," even though the field-effect transistor was first prototyped in the 1920s. The most informed science writers can fail to anticipate how some technologies will take off (and others won't).

On the other hand, I don't know if Kikuchi picked the year out of a hat, but there is this paragraph:

Since 2010, the entire world had been gripped in a dark curse. In the face of economic recession, growing regional conflicts, and rising crime rates, President Rama was as resolute in his actions as he was charitable in his words. And changed the world as a result.

To pick nits, crime rates have fallen in developed nations (if anything, the correlation between economic recession and crime seems consistently negative). Places like Mexico and the Middle East, though, are a very different story. And Kikuchi nailed the world recession business exactly.

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