August 29, 2011

When in Rome (or Japan)

How propriety easily gets confused with morality is amusingly illustrated by a pair of anecdotes from Michael Hoffman's historical overview of Japan-U.S. relations, written for the Japan Times (an informative and entertaining read).

First we have U.S. Consul Townsend Harris remarking in 1856 on the cleanliness of the Japanese people and the fact that staying clean involves, you know, bathing. Together. In a public bath. "In a state of perfect nudity."

I cannot account for so indelicate a proceeding on the part of a people so generally correct.

A few years later, a Japanese delegation at a state function was equally shocked to see American women "nude from shoulders to arms," and was offended by the "insufferable" sight of "men and women, both young and old, mixed in the dance."

Japanese men and women have always danced together at festivals, but these resemble line dances (no touching involved). In any case, ballroom dancing has since become perfectly acceptable, as illustrated in the wonderful film, Shall We Dance?

Mixed bathing (kon'yoku) was frowned upon mightily during the U.S. Occupation (1945-1952) and persists only at a handful of hot springs resorts, certainly not at local public baths (sentô), which are still prevalent though not as ubiquitous as before.

"B-list celebrity visits local hot springs resort" (not of the mixed bathing sort) is a favorite travel program genre on Japanese television. Japan has no shortage of local hot springs resorts (onsen) with long histories and quaint local customs to explore.

Anytime an anime series needs a lame excuse for a bunch of gratuitous nudity or low-brow humor (or both), it sends the characters to a hot springs resort. The onsen episode of Full Metal Panic FUMOFFU (episode 9) is one good example.

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August 25, 2011

The problem with projections

And now to the root of my baptism bubble. It's all about (it usually is) statistics (including the lies and the damned lies).

The beginnings in my case trace back to the late 1970s, when sociologists began paying serious attention to the Mormon church's membership growth. These studies culminated most famously in Rodney Stark's 1984 calculation of a 64 million to 267 million growth in membership over the next century.

Even if the church didn't directly, apologists didn't shrink from pointing to these studies and crowing about "independent" confirmation of inevitability of Mormon sectarian hegemony, and trumpeting the Mormonism's "fastest growing religion" status (an error that continues to this day).

There's one big problem with these rosy projections: the numbers Stark and others were using came from the church itself. The "official" membership numbers the church publishes don't count butts in pews. It's a number derived from membership records. It's a derivative.

Remember what happened the last time we treated derivatives like real things?

Every person a membership record has ever been generated for is included.(1) Because there are more "inactive Mormons" not attending church than "active" members, the database administrators have a problem: when to retire an entry. Answer: when you hit 110, you're officially dead.

In other words, Mormons who never attend church are, according to the church's membership database, the healthiest people on the planet.

Add to this "children of record." Although you don't "officially" become a Mormon until you are baptized, records are generated for children under eight. These records can be canceled at the local level, but that supposes somebody being around to remember (or care) to actually do so.

When my father was a membership clerk, he played private detective and went around tracking down these lost souls. That kind of fastidiousness is extremely rare.

Many COB (Church Office Building) watchers are aware of this, and try to invent other statistical proxies for church membership, such as the number of stakes. But outside Utah, stake and ward sizes are anything but a constant, the result being another loosely-derived derivative.

It is a very human problem. All bureaucracies behave like bureaucracies, and all bureaucrats behave like bureaucrats, whether church or state, whether the Boy Scouts or the Communist Party. Once you hint at measuring success using numbers, the Bernie Madoffs come out of the woodwork.

But that's unfair. The ones causing the most damage aren't the Mr. Potters in It's a Wonderful Life chortling as they screw over the little guy, but those convinced they're doing God's work (while screwing over the little guy).

The irony here is that the church knows exactly how many butts there are in the pews on any given Sunday. The ward clerk does a head count (one butt per head). By now, though, the disparity between reality and fantasy has grown so large there's no easy way to paper over the differences.

This "butt number" is one of the best-kept secrets in the world. The CIA could learn a thing or two.

I can imagine that Bernie Madoff never set out to run the biggest Ponzi scheme in history. But when it became apparent that he wasn't as smart as he thought he was, he didn't want to disappoint people or appear foolish, not unlike the bozos at Long Term Capital Management, who should have known better.

Madoff was once chairman of the NASDAQ stock exchange. The board of LTCM was graced by two Nobel laureates. This isn't about being smart enough, it's about knowing when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em, when to walk away, and when to run. Yep, a Kenny Rogers ballad may be all the wisdom we need.

Alas, even on a good day, very few of us are as smart as a country-western ballad. So the bean counters in the COB don extra-big blinders and gallop onwards, looking forward to the day when the entire world has converted to Mormonism but nobody shows up to church.

1. If you have your records "removed," are you counted or not? Dunno. But the record is never actually removed, especially if you're an excommunicated polygamist whack job. The church doesn't want you hopping to another ward and sneaking in through the back door. You can check out of this church anytime you want, but you can never leave.

Related posts

The evolution
Blowing bubbles
The truth is worse
The weirdest two years

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August 22, 2011

I'm being repressed!

I read this:

Jewish people have the Anti-Defamation League "to stop the defamation of the Jewish people." Muslims have the Council on American-Islamic Relations "to enhance understanding of Islam." Now . . . the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research is announcing the formation of the Mormon Defense League.

And after realizing it was not from The Onion, the first thing that popped into my mind was this:

Dennis: Come and see the violence inherent in the system. Help! Help! I'm being repressed!
King Arthur: Bloody peasant!
Dennis: Oh, what a giveaway! Did you hear that? Did you hear that, eh? That's what I'm on about! Did you see him repressing me? You saw him, didn't you?

A plague of professional offense-taking has been sweeping the nation for lo these many years. The antidote is to laugh it out of existence. The "MDL" is a good place to start.

(Frankly, practically every PR problem the Mormon church has is the result of trying solve its bad PR with more PR, instead of, you know, fixing the problem.)

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August 18, 2011

Kantai Kessen

As I mused previously, we human beings have a hard time believing anything we're not predisposed to believe until we are forced to believe it. By the same token, we have a hard time not believing what we used to believe—when the evidence turns against it—until we are forced to stop believing it.

This is no more true than the military doctrine of Kantai Kessen, that doomed the Japanese navy almost from the start the Pacific War (and that ironically owes a great deal to Alfred Thayer Mahan, a U.S. Navy officer and historian).

Kantai Kessen posited a winner-take-all contest between battleships that would result in uncontested command of the seas. The problem was, Nimitz declined to engage in such a contest, and the one man capable of shifting strategies with the tides of war, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, was killed in 1943.

Thereafter, all Kantai Kessen achieved was the systematic destruction of the Japanese navy as scarce military resources were mustered to create one "decisive" contest after the next. This only allowed the U.S. navy to dominate each increasingly lopsided battle and eat away at conveniently concentrated Japanese assets.

Kantai Kessen reached its apotheosis during the Battle of the Philippine Sea, an engagement so one-sided that American airmen called it "The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot." Ten months later, in the Battle of the East China Sea, the Yamato, the largest battleship ever built, was destroyed in a few hours by carrier aircraft.

The Japanese military leaders couldn't stop believing in Kantai Kessen because it had proved so effective during the Russo-Japanese War.

Or at least they thought it had.

The Japanese navy did indeed crush the Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, compelling the Russians to sue for peace. The brilliant Admiral Heihachiro Togo twice executed the classic naval maneuver known as "crossing the T," positioning every ship in his fleet to fire full broadsides at the enemy.

The "underdog" victory was hailed around the world (despite the fact that it began with a "sneak attack"), and the Japanese government was quick to believe its own press, conveniently forgetting that the land war going on at the same time had been anything but decisive, with the Japanese infantry taking as many casualties as the Russians.

Togo had fought an exhausted navy that sailed halfway around the world to engage them. The Japanese were fighting in their home waters and had a greater mastery of wireless telegraphy and torpedo technology. The Russian government was already weak, the loss further destabilized it, and it would fall apart a dozen years later.

Bizarrely, the victorious Japanese subsequently came away from the Treaty of Portsmouth claiming: "We was robbed!" This combination of aggrievement and overconfidence set the stage for the next forty years of accumulating disasters.

The real problem with history is not that nobody learns from it, but that we learn the wrong things. And having studiously learned them, the "facts" supporting those beliefs become almost impossible to dislodge from the collective consciousness.

Related posts

Twilight of the Zero
The known unknowns
Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan

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August 15, 2011

The known unknowns

On the 66th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, NHK broadcast a fascinating look at what the Japanese government knew—or should have known—about the impending destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The surprising answer is they knew—or should have know—a lot.

Combing through the archives of Japan's signals intelligence service, NHK unearthed the original log books and taped interviews with key personnel made after the war. What becomes clear is that the analysts "on the ground" had collected all the pieces, but nobody in the chain of command put the puzzle together.

Here is what NHK found about what they knew they didn't know at the time:

  • The Japanese government initiated its own atomic bomb program (promising to destroy New York), but canceled it soon afterward, concluding that it was impossible and the American project would never succeed.
  • Although they couldn't read the encrypted messages, Japan's signals intelligence service identified and logged the call sign prefixes of B-29s flying out of the Marianas Islands, and could roughly predict their destinations.
  • Early in 1945, they detected a new call sign prefix (tagged "V-6") being used by a curiously small air wing comprised of only a handful of planes. These planes flew a large number of training missions from Tinian Island.
  • The Supreme War Council was aware of the atomic bomb test in Alamogordo, New Mexico (perhaps through their Soviet contacts), but assumed it was a new kind of conventional explosive.
  • On 6 August 1945, a single B-29 using a V-6 call sign was detected approaching Japan. The signals intelligence service sent this unusual information up the chain of command. No action was taken.
  • That B-29 was the Enola Gay.
  • A day later, the Supreme War Council announced that Hiroshima was destroyed by a small but powerful conventional bomb. When it became clear the bomb was atomic, they said it was unlikely the U.S. had more than one.
  • The signals intelligence service requested permission to order evacuations if another B-29 using a V-6 call sign entered Japanese air space. Permission was never granted.
  • On 9 August 1945, a B-29 using a V-6 call sign was detected approaching Kyushu. This information was sent up the chain of command. No action was taken.
  • That B-29 was the Bockscar.
  • At least five hours elapsed between the time the V-6 call sign was logged and Nagasaki was bombed. The Bockscar was delayed by a late rendezvous, then by cloud cover over its primary target, before diverting to Nagasaki.

A similar row of dominoes can be identified leading up to Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Hence the problem with post hoc reasoning and 20/20 hindsight. The branches all lead down to the trunk. But starting at the trunk, there is no telling where a branch will end up. That is what keeps conspiracy theorists in business.

However obvious a chain of cause and effect may be, we have difficulty believing anything we're not predisposed to believe until forced by events to believe it. With good reason—evolution selects against gullibility. Knowing when to stick with the known or embrace the unknown is a core challenge of being human.

Related posts

Kantai Kessen
Twilight of the Zero
Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan

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August 11, 2011

Kids these days

The Story of O-An, first published in 1737, is based on the reminiscences of a young girl escaping with her family from a besieged castle during the Battle of Sekigahara (1600). The account is considered historically accurate.

It's a harrowing tale. Her brother is shot and killed in front of her. Before the castle falls, her father is "allowed" to escape with O-An and her mother by floating them across the moat in a washing tub. A few minutes later, her mother goes into labor.

It was a girl. The adults gave the baby her first bath right there in the paddy water. After they were finished, the father [Haruo Shirane translates it as "her father"] wrapped it in his clothing, swung [her] mother over his shoulder, and fled to Aonogahara.

Note the "kids these days" conclusion (and remember that this would be the mid-to-late seventeenth century):

This is how things were in the old days: nothing was easy. We never even dreamed of eating lunch, and when night fell, there was no supper either. Young people today, with their fancy clothes and free-spending ways and fussy palates, it's truly scandalous.

In her home town, "Granny Hikone," as she was later known, apparently turned into the eighteenth century version of "Grandpa Simpson."

Even now, when an old person starts talking about things were different in their day, people call that a "Hikone."

O-An has a point. Working at McDonald's is one thing. Molding bullets and "putting tags on the heads our side took in battle to remember who they were" is quite another. A little perspective about what constitutes a "bad day" doesn't hurt at times like this.

I've mostly used a translation by Matt Treyvaud. Google Books has a translation by Haruo Shirane (Early Modern Japanese Literature, 1600-1900).

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August 08, 2011

The Bow-wow Detective

The prize for the police procedural with the goofiest premise goes to Deka Wanko ("Bow-wow Detective"). Based on a manga by Gokusen creator Kozueko Morimoto, it's about Ichiko Hanamori, a rookie cop who possesses a dog's olfactory powers.

"Something about this case stinks!"

For unknown reasons, Ichiko runs around in impractically poofy outfits and manages several costume changes an episode. Well the reason is that Mikako Tabe looks really cute in them. She's the moe version of Abby Sciuto (NCIS).

Tabe makes the whole thing work because she's an excellent comic actress and plays the whole thing with a straight face.

The show is flagged as a goof from the start. The give-away is that Ichiko carries a gun. Cops rarely carry guns in Japan. The entire country can go years without a single police shooting (Utah is lucky to go a month without a police shooting).

A nice touch is that Ichiko can figure out things with her nose that would never stand up on court. So she has to work with her "ordinary" detective partners (who don't necessary believe in her superpowers) to provide the proof that will convict the bad guys.

Hollywood could make a go of the concept, albeit toned way down, something like Lie to Me, which I consider more a superhero show (and perhaps is even better when considered in that context).

Most manga premises of this sort tend to turn the volume up to eleven, which might work when you're maybe doing a dozen shows, max. But in a continuing series, they end up burning out the actors and quickly burning through all the plausible plots.

Here are three more quasi-superhero shows based on manga that would make good Hollywood properties (again, toned way down and paced for longevity):

Someday's Dreamers
Ghost Talker's Daydream

My version of Hellsing would be Angel, except with an only grudgingly good Spike in the lead (and who might actually be the devil himself, but got bored with modern evil). And I'd lose the whole X-File-ish backstory.

The last one is basically Ghost Whisperer, except the heroine works in an S&M club (because ghosts don't hang out in S&M clubs) and she hates dead people. She also has a head of hair that strangles people who piss her off.

She gets talked into working for the local exorcism agency that cleans up crime scenes after the cops are done (and ends up playing detective). Like Someday's Dreamers it posits the existence of the supernatural in a very workaday fashion.

The manga can be quite good (I haven't read the English translation). A hacked-together anime version is quite awful. Incidentally, the anime version of Gokusen is quite good. A live action television series was hugely popular and I loathed it utterly.

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August 04, 2011

Writing to be read

A while back I pointed out this pair of paens to the pulps. The Wall Street Journal recently examined the actual substance of the genre in Allan Massie's review of The Big Book of Adventure Stories, edited by Otto Penzler.

Massie writes fondly of a time when the point of storytelling was (strangely enough) to tell a story. The result was "their day's version of the modern action movie." Not always good, often quite awful, but the "masters of popular fiction always play by the rules. And rule No. 1 is to grab the reader at once."

Somerset Maugham, Massie reminds us, defended the pulps much as G.K. Chesterton had fifty years earlier. Their authors, Maugham noted, wrote stories that "defeated time." And yet the critics "have the ingratitude to throw [them] aside with a sneer and look down upon their authors. It is graceless."

My only beef with Massie's analysis is his claim that these "stories belong to a time when our culture was essentially literate. That time has passed." No, these stories belong to a time when writers wrote to be read. Now their children and grandchildren work in television, and write to be watched.

Related posts

Down with literacy
Angsty angst ruins everything
A scientific defense of fiction
Good books don't have to be hard

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August 01, 2011

The Big Bad

The problem I have with LOTR is the same one I have with the Star Wars sequels, Harry Potter, The Dark Knight, even Narnia: I don't care about the bad guy. His goals and motives are incomprehensible, or he goes about achieving them in the dumbest way possible, or conversely, he's omnipotent—except when he isn't for purposes of plot.

Not caring about the bad guy, it's hard to care about the conflict challenging the good guys. What would Sauron do if he got the ring? Bad things! Um, what bad things? No idea, but it'd probably be more interesting than this movie!

The first Stars Wars is instructive in this regard. Darth Vader is a cog in a machine. His ostensible superiors disrespect him to his face. We get that he's defending a fading way of life in an efficiently managed Empire where the galactic trains all run on time. (It's not clear what the rebels bring to the table as a viable political platform.)

Then Lucas got all preachy and Manichean and perversely tried to "humanize" Vader, revealing that he had no idea what motivates anybody to do anything, except that we again see a disturbingly common pattern in all these movies: bad people are really ugly.

And incredibly dim and ineffective. Rowling (more ugly) has conveniently summed up everything she doesn't understand about villainy in her own arch-villain:

That which Voldemort does not value he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children's tales, of love, loyalty and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped.

Voldemort was steeped in that culture. He couldn't not understand it. Nobody that clueless could gather around him the best and the brightest, and then almost pull off a successful coup d'état. The great villains of history have always had a finger planted firmly on the pulse of the popular will and the governing zeitgeist.

There's a basic confusion here about the means by which people rise to power, and the ways in which they exercise it once it has corrupted them absolutely.

If anything, Voldemort is a carbon copy of Joss Whedon's first Big Bad, the "Master" from season one of Buffy. Whedon's villains improved considerably after that, reaching the epitome of cool, calculating evil in the person of Sunnydale Mayor Richard Wilkins (Harry Groener).

And the coolest, most calculating thing about Mayor Wilkins? He got elected. Compared to him, Voldemort is a cardboard cutout.

Which is not to say there aren't good uses for cardboard villains. Where would James Bond be without them? But they have short half-lives. Take the (ugly) villains of Independence Day. They serve the purpose well for two hours. Any longer and their unfathomable stupidity would become intolerable.

Similarly, the one redeeming characteristic of "Evil Angel" was that he was a two-hundred proof nihilist. But two-hundred proof nihilism gets boring fast, which is what prompts Spike's famous monologue:

We like to talk big, vampires do. "I'm going to destroy the world." It's just tough guy talk. Strut round with your friends over a pint of blood. The truth is I like this world. You've got dog racing. Manchester United. And you've got people. Billions of people walking around like Happy Meals with legs. It's all right here.

Both Buffy and Angel eventually succumbed to too many Big Bads destroying the world too many times. Though to give credit where it's due, Whedon did come up with another real bad beauty, the law firm of Wolfram & Hart. Okay, "evil lawyer" is playing to stereotypes, but good art doesn't dispense with stereotypes; it fully fleshes them out.

Destroying the world is easy and dull. Corrupting it using the kind of enlightened people who contribute to PBS and wouldn't be caught dead (or living dead) at McDonald's or Walmart and earnestly believe they're doing the right thing for the greater good (and for your own good) is a much more rewarding challenge.

Related posts

Oh yeah, we're baaad
Apocalypse not now
No way to wage a war
It's not about the bad guys

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