September 26, 2011

It's not about the bad guys

Kate's review of Sherlock, the "modernized" BBC Holmes series, got me to thinking again about why I found it so annoying. The casting and the setup is perfect, but the early introduction of Moriarty--a Moriarty of such inexplicable means and motives--wrecked it for me.

What Orson Scott Card says about the "Red John" character on The Mentalist applies here: "He was made too powerful, with tentacles reaching everywhere, so that we began to wonder why he didn't just kill everybody and become king."

Like Card, if he doesn't stay dead (he didn't), I'll stop watching (I will), because "I don't tune in to watch the same repulsive villain week after week. I tune in to watch intriguing and enjoyable heroes" dispose of the bad guys.

I watched the pilot episode of The Secret Circle. It's the kind of show I want to like, but I'll give it a pass. Besides being yet another 90210-with-a-twist soap, the thought of hanging out with the same mean girls and angsty teenagers and evil, Machiavellian adults every week is tiring.

Recall that Buffy was about hanging out with the same interesting, resourceful and good kids and adults every week. The underlying conflict did not depend on Cordelia perpetually being a bitch or even Spike being evil. In fact, the series got better as their characters matured.

The X-Files was big on conspiracies, but structured so that most of the episodes had nothing to do with the big conspiracy arc. They were entertaining ghost or crime stories solved by the odd genius and his level-headed sidekick. Which should also be true of Sherlock Holmes.

And when the conspirators did show up, more often than not, Mulder was caught in between competing cosmic forces. He wasn't constantly being preyed upon, at the mercy of fate or crazies. When he did end up in somebody's cross-hairs, the means and ends justifying them aligned.

Even so, as the conspiratorial twists and turns compounded, it became necessary to explain why the Cigarette Smoking Man just couldn't bump off Mulder. (The Cigarette Smoking Man also showed up in a hilarious episode that explained why running the world is boring.)

The problem seems to comes down to a dearth of writers capable of creating truly smart villains, so they instead create sociopathic and really lucky ones. They turn the bad guys into amoral demigods, and that is surprisingly dull.

This is a persistent problem with superhero series, and one that doesn't need to exist in the first place. As Kate points out, the vast majority of Agatha Christie's criminals are "simple and believable." Their actual crimes are comprehensible in the given context and rather mundane.

Especially when it comes to the police procedural, it's not the crime or the criminal that's interesting, but how the hero solves the one and catches the other.

Related posts

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September 22, 2011

Hey, watch this!

Netflix beat Blockbuster the same way Amazon and Walmart beat their competition: supply chain mastery. Distributing physical things is that difficult. Inventory control is what ultimately did in Borders. Now Netflix is trying to compete in the same market as Apple and Amazon using the same Internet as everybody else.

But Netflix convinced itself that its physical supply chain was an albatross around its corporate neck. Even if it was spinning off the DVD division to sell it at a later date, the mystery is why it would destroy the brand now ("Qwikster"?) before any deal is done. PC Magazine has already added Netflix to its pantheon of tech debacles.

An obvious comparison is the Kindle. Amazon sees a big future in ebooks. It's built an entire publishing platform based on ebooks. But it isn't about to spin off its physical supply chain (call it "Bookster"). When launching the Kindle, Amazon could augment the still-slender Kindle catalog with its deeper catalog of physical books.

What does Amazon do with excess capacity in its supply chain? Amazon sublets it, even if that means competing against itself. It doesn't care as long as it gets a cut of the action.

As I mentioned before, Netflix no longer has the deepest anime catalog on the Internet, the only reason I signed up with them in the first place. But Netflix has what niche competitors like Greencine lack—a nationwide supply chain. Why not sublet that excess capacity to any other renter of "First-sale doctrine" IP materials?

In any case, had Netflix just nailed down a bunch of long-term licensing agreements with the major IP owners and the owners of the pipes all that data has to travel through, that'd be one thing. But with Starz still holding out, Netflix is negotiating from a position of weakness while kicking the business that brought it this far to the curb.

Like a hormone-addled teenager, it's as if Netflix CEO Reed Hastings thinks he can impress all those disenchanted subscribers and cute content providers who keep blowing him off by doing something as arrogantly grandiose as it is self-destructive. Hey, watch this! Or in the immortal words of Otter from Animal House:

No, I think we have to go all out. I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part!

And they were just the ones to do it. Of course, such demonstrations of desperate determination often end with a trip to the hospital. Or bankruptcy court.

Related posts

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September 19, 2011

Sentiment vs. solutions

Lisa Torcasso Downing has an interesting--and mostly favorable--review of Angel Falling Softly. I can't argue with her basic criticism, first because what a work of art ultimately means is what the consumer of the art says it means; and second because I can't really recall my frame of mind when I wrote it.

Call it the literary uncertainty principle, disentangling what people say about something you wrote from what you were thinking at the time you wrote it. It's like George Lucas learning that Star Wars was a retelling of the monomyth and then concluding, disastrously, that he'd done it on purpose.

I do know that my premise for the novel was that Rachel, having plowed through all the spiritual solutions and Kubler-Ross stages, had arrived at the "whatever works" stage, no matter how removed from reality (growing up, I witnessed a stalwart member of my Mormon ward hitting this wall and hard).

And third, because Downing makes a good point about the way the male mind approaches the world. As Chris (my publisher) comments,

I'm not saying the novel wouldn't have been enriched with developing the mother/daughter relationship a little more, but to me it's also a no-brainer that the relationship would be there, and it doesn't sound like something I want to read about.

There's a lot of truth in the Tim Allen school of male psychology: "I solve problems (preferable with power tools), therefore I am." When a man finds himself under assault by a tidal wave of emotion, screaming inside his head is the frantic plea: Is there a problem in here somewhere I can solve?

Though such preferences are equally influenced by by our subjective tastes when it comes to fictional representations of the world. Erica Friedman sums it up well:

What I want so desperately to see is stories of women who have made it past the scarring, have learned to not lose control of the situation, even when things are falling apart around her. A leader. A calm in the storm. Not the storm itself.

Alas, protagonists who are "the storm itself" have become a plague in action series and police procedurals, regardless of sex. Take the latest incarnation of Hawaii Five-O. Every male lead has "angst" and "issues." I much prefer Jack Lord's Steve McGarrett, whose only "issues" are with the bad guys.

Okay, I'm probably tilting too far the other way, but I'm totally on board with Kate that one of the most issue-free relationships on television is that between Major Samantha Carter and Colonel Jack O'Neill from Stargate SG-1, a big reason why Major Carter "falls into her own category of awesomeness."

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September 15, 2011

Playing by the rules

In his review of The Big Book of Adventure Stories, an anthology of classic pulp fiction, Allan Massie notes that

Sincerity is essential in this sort of work. The author must believe in what he is writing if the reader is to believe while reading. Irony is out. The masters of popular fiction always play by the rules.

And David Goldman points out that "ordinary people can't be expected to learn a new style every time they encounter the work of a new artist (neither can critics, but they pretend to)." In the real world of consumer art, not playing by the rules means that

today's "serious" artists write for a miniscule coterie of aficionados in order to validate their own self-invention, and get university jobs if they are lucky, inflicting the same sort of misery on their students.

As a result, the "sort of art that appeals to a general audience has retreated into popular culture," which, Goldman quips, "is not the worst sort of outcome." Agrees screenwriter Robert Ben Garant:

What people need to embrace and accept, if you're going to be a writer in Hollywood, is that every single movie has the exact same structure, exactly, whether it's Die Hard or Night at the Museum . . . But the problem that a lot of young screenwriters have--and by that, I mean the baristas at Starbucks--is that they are struggling because they think formula is a bad word.

This problem can trip up established veterans. Recurring flaws in Joss Whedon's work seem to spring from an unwillingness to leave the hard lifting to the formula. Or maybe it's because he turns over the reins to assistants, who then try to be "creative."

This was somewhat understandable with Buffy, because of the inherent age and setting limitations. Angel suffered from neither, and should have been a witty noir PI drama (with a supernatural edge), a once popular but sadly underserved genre.

Alas, the show kept piling on cast members and ending the world (literally) in order to generate enough conflict to keep everybody interested. By contrast, with David Boreanaz basically playing an older Angel, Bones has mostly avoided these problems.

Related posts

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September 12, 2011

Moments of silence

Listening to the 9/11 ceremonies on NPR, the spare amounts of speechifying and the moments of silence reminded me of what is called mokutou (黙祷) in Japanese, or "silent prayer."

Although religious in origin, mokutou is unadorned by religious trappings. When it comes to memorials, the sparer the better (Bloomberg was also right to keep the ceremonies mostly secular).

In a strange, cosmic coincidence, 9/11 was the sixth month anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Northern Japan on 3/11. Here is a clip of a first month mokutou.

The "mokutou" is always announced, though it's usually preceded by a chime, not a siren. (The reason for the press attention in this particular case is ex-Prime Minister Hatoyama, third from right).

A simple ritual can displace a lot of empty rhetoric. The basic form of kiritsu (stand) and rei (bow) permeates Japanese society, and sort of substitutes for the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools.

The timing of memorial services in Japan, however, is horribly complex.

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September 08, 2011

Back to the digital future

In this blast from the past, John Dvorak goes back twenty-five years and discovers how resistant to change smart people can be (smart enough to run an Ivy League school), digging up this quote by Harvard University president Derek Bok:

Harvard is not [emphasis added] committed to digitizing its library system or establishing a computer network between students and professors.

BYU had completely digitized its card catalog system by 1985. When I started graduate school the next year, an IBM XT loaded with the ERIC index on CD-ROM showed up in the second floor reference section (I can still visualize where it was).

Talk about a breath of fresh air! The BC (before computer) system required pawing though two dozen telephone book-sized indexes (plus the quarterly supplements) year by year for every topic you wanted to research, again and again and again.

And then searching the stacks and praying that the journal was there (if the library even had it), hadn't been lost, misshelved, damaged, or checked out (permanently) by a professor. Enough of this nostalgia for the moldy smell of paper.

That was also when I bought my first PC, a used Kaypro II (2.5 MHz Z80, 64KB RAM). It cost me about a grand. Twenty years later, I paid the same amount (adjusted for inflation) for an IBM ThinkPad (1.7 GHz Pentium-M, 1GB RAM).

By the way, let's also can the hand-wringing over format obsolescence. I still have every file originally saved to those single-sided, 5.25 inch floppies. All of the papers physically typed on real paper and stored away in the BC years? Long gone.

In another sign of those ancient times, I was actually allowed to board airplanes with that Kaypro as a carry on! It had a practically bullet-proof aluminum case and weighed thirty pounds! Back then, though, any portable computer was exotic.

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September 05, 2011

No way to wage a war

During one of those free preview weekends (Cinemax, I believe), I was watching Avatar (the most expensive anime film ever made) in short bursts (until my rolled eyes made it impossible to see), and came to three realizations:

  • When it comes to sermons about noble savages and the white man's burden, Dances with Wolves gets it pretty much right.
  • Though Avatar is more a remake of Independence Day and The Last Samurai.
  • The intelligence with which fictional cinematic wars are waged cannot exceed that of the writer and director.

Costner especially gets the scale right. Dunbar doesn't rise to the top of a huge, established feudal order (nor one that unlike any other feudal order in history is mysteriously united in purpose). Dunbar's prior training is commensurate to the task. He doesn't magically acquire skills out of whole cloth.

Costner doesn't ignore history. In the long run, the U.S. Army would not be defeated. Not even close. They would return with overwhelming force and a really bad attitude.

In glaring contrast to Dances with Wolves, Edward Zwick's ahistorical The Last Samurai demonstrates how desperately dumb Hollywood can get in its search for exotic noble savages and angsty white Americans to heroically shoulder their burdens.

I go into greater depth here, but the Battle of the Southwest was fought against a nascent democracy to preserve the feudal privileges of an aristocratic order, and was led by a man who quit the government mostly because it didn't invade Korea fast enough (they got around to it a few decades later).

Not to mention that Americans never served as military advisers or arms suppliers to the Meiji government. If anybody, that honor goes to an adventurous and enterprising Scotsman, Thomas Blake Glover (a way more interesting person than any fictional character in any of these movies).

An American Civil War veteran, Captain L. L. Janes, was hired by the Meiji government, but to set up a school for "western learning" in Kumamoto.

So I suppose James Cameron came up with the ideal solution and invented his noble savages out of whole cloth, making sure the black hats were naught but black and the white hats were bluer than blue, and every conflict was absolutely unresolvable by any rational means.

But the real formula being shamelessly exploited here is the classic underdog story. Except that Rocky going up against Apollo Creed is one thing. Having the good guys win grossly mismatched military conflicts is quite another.

Read more »

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September 01, 2011

Useful Japanese stereotypes

A while back, my sister asked what I thought of two books she's using in her Business Communications course—How to Say "No" Without Feeling Guilty (U.S.) and 16 Ways to Avoid Saying "No" (Japan)"—specifically, the sociological picture they paint of Japanese society. To summarize:

Japanese culture values non-confrontation and discourages the expression of negative emotions (but more amongst insiders than outsiders; it is more acceptable to be rude to outsiders than insiders). An individual raised in Japan will make more group ("we") references, rely more on nonverbal communication (silence, eye contact or lack thereof), and experience more communication apprehension (get worried about communicating) than an individual raised in the United States.

As far as broad brushes go—which anybody painting big pictures has to use (stereotypes persist because they are useful)—I don't find much here to disagree with. But in explaining the what, the why perhaps needs more attention. It's too tautological to say that a culture is a certain way because that's the way the the culture is.

For example, generally speaking, it's true that Japan is a "high-context" culture and the United States is a "low-context" culture. Japan has maintained a common frame of reference for centuries (from 1603–1868, allowing nobody else in as a matter of national policy), while the United States has been integrating unique frames of reference for centuries.

Americans have to let the words speak for themselves because they can't automatically assume a shared context. Japanese can imply a lot more, trusting that the other person will understand what they are hinting at (which is not to say that this trust can't be highly misplaced).

Writers can play with this ambiguity and hide information from the reader. (Unfortunately, doing so also hides information from the translator.) It is grammatical in Japanese to drop subjects, and the passive voice is ubiquitous. Dialogue tags can also be a lot more vague, with the speaker being identified, for example, solely by the choice of pronoun (and I'm not refering to gender).

The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis—which goes in and out of favor, depending on the tides of academic political correctness—has its place. To quote Wikipedia, "Differences in the way languages encode cultural and cognitive categories affect the way people think, so that speakers of different languages will tend to think and behave differently depending on the language they use."

However, it can quickly degrade into a chicken-egg problem, encouraging nativist nonsense such as the Nihonjinron craze during the 1980s, which extrapolated Sapir–Whorf down to the genetic level and back up to the nationalistic level, pushing the notion of "exceptionalism" into the absurd.

Applying Occam's Razor, though, I think these approaches can overthink the whole thing. The biggest clue is that while Japanese are indeed "group oriented," they're not a bunch of extroverts who want to hang out together volubly emoting in a big Oprah-fest. It's more a collective action and safety-in-numbers thing.

The easiest way to understand Japan is that it's a country of 128 million introverts living in a country the size of California. It really is that simple. As the Wikipedia writer wittily puts it (with a bit of editing):

Under the alias of assertions of differences, expressions of nationalism in Japan, as elsewhere, borrow promiscuously from the conceptual hoards of others, and what may seem alien turns out often to be, once studied closely, merely an exotic variation on an all too familiar theme.

Considering Japan's recent feudal past—more efficiently run and deeply entrenched than medieval Europe's—and in light of an ultra-high population density, institutionalizing ways of not stepping on the toes of people who could ruin your day was a Darwinian necessity that shaped the society and the individual and the language (like those Russian foxes).

And has also resulted in a culture where the default coping mechanism is passive-aggressive behavior. Maybe that's why nerdy introverts all over the world instinctively "get it."

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Life is a sim
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