March 29, 2012

Kala Sarpa

Serpent of Time is a literal translation of the Sanskrit, "kala" meaning "time/era/season" and "sarpa" meaning "snake."

Courtesy Shrinivasa Sharma.

Kala Sarpa is a yoga in Vedic astrology. In this context, "yoga" is a school of Hindu philosophy, more approximate to the various schools of psychology.

Technically speaking, the Kala Sarpa yoga involves the entrapment of the grahas (planets) located between Rahu (the head of the snake that swallows the sun or moon causing eclipses) and Ketu (the snake's tail). No, I don't know what that means either, except that

the existence of Kala Sarpa yoga in the horoscope indicates very strong karmic bondage. Such people are always fired by some unknown zeal and if they lack the spiritual orientation in their mental being, the impulses of this yoga can sweep away their good sense leading to indulgence in violent and catastrophic acts.

But on the plus side, those under its influence are made more

industrious, hardworking, aware of their own abilities, despite mental restlessness. It raises them to top positions in their respective fields, provided, of course, that other Raja yogas are present. Rahu/Ketu axis favors rise in mundane life while Ketu/Rahu axis indicates elevation in spiritual matters.

Got that? To be fair, though, take a long, hard look at the entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia on the foundational doctrine of Christianity, the atonement. After a great deal of deep discussion, the writer confesses to the difficulty of finding "adequate expression in any human theory."

In other words, our weird beliefs are great, incomprehensible truths. Your weird beliefs are just goofy superstitions.

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March 26, 2012

Selling the sizzle (not the mistakes)

Maohden (my current project) is the first in the "Demon City Blues" series, published before Yashakiden. It's half the length and moves a brisker clip than the latter, which clocks in at about half a million words. Yashakiden is Kikuchi's Moby Dick, and like Melville he writes a Wikipedia entry for every parenthetical and plot tangent.

(That world building is a fantastic accomplishment, but I wish that instead of a gory, erotic vampire thriller, he'd written a novel focusing on the Chicago-style politics of Demon City's mayor.)

Once you get past the info-dumps, Kikuchi rewards the reader of his adult novels (Demon City Shinjuku is safely Y/A) with plenty of BDSM kink and rape porn. These novels were originally serialized, and in Maohden, I could swear Kikuchi's editor gave him a list of fetishes and a quota.

It's not exactly my cup of tea, so I have to wonder about the market. Because it's sure there. This is hardly unique to Japan. Consider a far more successful literary import. From Steve Sailer's review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo:

I was at the local art-house cinema in 2010 when the third thriller [of the original Swedish trilogy] debuted, and it looked like Twilight for the elderly. The lobby was jammed with shuffling octogenarians. The restroom lines were moving so slowly that I fear many Larsson fans may have missed their favorite sexual-torture and sadistic-revenge scenes.

But what really caught my attention is the romance trilogy Fifty Shades (that started out as Twilight fan fiction). It's gotten gushy write-ups in the New York Post and the requisite handwringing from David Goldman in the Asia Times. To be clear, the sex scenes are garnering all this attention, certainly not the writing.

And yet if the sizzle was all that selling the steak required, then Hideyuki Kikuchi and E.L. James could have saved themselves a whole lot of work (and words). Not to mention all the competition from the near-infinite number of free offerings when it comes to sizzle-only entertainment.

I encourage everybody to go to Amazon and download the sample chapters for the first book. There's no sex in the sample. There is a by-the-numbers hypergamous romance formula on full display, "fifty cringingly cheesy pages of exposition before getting to the explicit sex scenes," as Chiara Atik describes it.

To be sure, I've got no beef with by-the-numbers (or, for that matter, sex scenes). Do a monomyth actioner right and I don't care how many times it's been done before. Scanning the sample chapters for books two and three, the plot of Fifty Shades apparently boils down to our alpha male corporate wonderboy having "issues."

Nobody in Kikuchi's novels has "issues." Or, rather, everybody's got issues, just of the zombie apocalypse sort, usually solved Buffy-style, with a stake through the heart.

But just as the readers of Fifty Shades-type fiction must want the kink cluttered up with "issues" and angst, so Kikuchi's readers want it couched in geeky science fiction and blood & gore action (with a hint of yaoi). This raises interesting questions about the necessary and sufficient conditions required for popular story creation.

Life in the real world is about aspiring to perfection but compromising with reality. We constantly negotiate how much of X we're willing to put up with to get Y. But I think something more subtle is involved with our entertainment choices. It's a threshold effect. Up to a certain point, it's not that we "put up with" X, we don't even notice it.

Given a good story, for example, I can forgive a lot of bad science in my science fiction. However, if I don't buy into the premise, it doesn't matter how golden the prose, high-minded the philosophy, or pristine the cinematography. Nor are these static standards, but shift from genre to genre and book to book, even chapter to chapter.

As Orson Scott Card puts it, "The stories and characters that endure do so for reasons having almost nothing to do with the talent of the writer."

Which is why the quality argument constantly thrown at fan fiction and self-publishing in particular misses the point. And why criticizing the literary quality of (and political and economic plot holes in) Harry Potter and The Hunger Games arouses such ire among their fans. You're messing with those thresholds.

Seth Roberts provides a good personal example. Wondering why he enjoyed reading The Hunger Games when Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings bored him silly, he concludes that

Sentence by sentence, even scene by scene, The Hunger Games is mediocre. It is not quotable. There is no vivid writing. The characters are barely interesting. It is not Jonathan Franzen, much less Vladimir Nabokov. But it does a wonderful job of supplying the four basic elements of a good story: a hero, a villain, making you care about the hero, and putting the hero in jeopardy.

Says Philip Pullman, "We need stories so much that we're willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books won't supply them." At the end of the day, writing a "good" book won't satisfy your readers if what they really want is in the "bad" ones. In other words, if you want to get read a lot, write what a lot of people want to read.

Easy to say. A lot harder to actually do. I'm still working on it. But I'm sure it begins with disentangling what we wish about an audience's tastes from what they are actually looking for (which, of course, doesn't preclude providing a little something more on the side).

Related posts

Abstinence porn
Demon City libertarianism
The Business Rusch: Quality

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March 22, 2012

The Konpon Dai-tô

The Japanese pagoda ( means "pagoda") evolved from stupa built to contain relics of the Buddha (discussed here). The structure symbolizes the Five Elements--earth, water, fire, air and space. Pagoda architecture also provides early examples of earthquake proofing using pendulum damping.

The biggest architectural difference is that Japanese pagodas are always made out of wood, also because of earthquakes.

The pagoda is framed around a central pole (真柱), usually the trunk of a large cedar tree. Except that in a finished pagoda, the central pole is not load-bearing. The weight of the structure is carried by the outside supporting pillars that define the square shape of the pagoda's floors.

The central pole instead serves to dampen the sideways motion of the upper floors (cantilevered and inertially stable), and channels that energy into the ground. Tokyo's 2,080 foot Sky Tree also employees a central stationary pendulum, along with a pair of tuned mass dampers.

I don't think it mere coincidence that the digital television antennas perched atop the Sky Tree closely resemble the surprisingly futuristic finials that have graced the roofs of pagodas for centuries.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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March 19, 2012

Superbad is superboring

Kate recently discussed the problem of the omniscient enemy in regards to The Mentalist. She concluded that "I will keeping watching The Mentalist, only keeping in mind that Red John is an amorphous force rather than a flesh and blood enemy."

I'm less forgiving. For me, the "omniscient enemy" eventually wrecked the logical foundations of the show such that I couldn't watch it anymore.

(Besides, other than Tim Kang as Cho, the rest of the regulars are horribly miscast. There's zero chemistry between Tunney and Baker. And what are rank rookies doing on this super-special task force?)

The omnipotent enemy is my biggest gripe with Yashakiden. "Princess" as a villain is so unstoppable that everything connected to her narrative moves forward according to her whims. Whimsy as a motivation drains the drama of any real tension when she's on stage.

As Kate puts it, "Characters held to the laws of probability are far more interesting than an omniscient enemy could possibly be."

The more interesting characters are Princess's subordinates, especially Kikiou, who can't take over the world without her help. And she doesn't really care about taking over the world. That's an interesting conflict. As I discuss here, the politics is where the action is.

Politics is what makes The X-Files different as well. The fundamental conflict is not between Mulder and the aliens. Or even Mulder and the Cigarette Smoking Man. It's between the aliens and the government (and then between those aliens and a second set of aliens).

So reasons can always be found for keeping Mulder around. Okay, they do get a bit tortured at times, but "eliminate Mulder" or even "give Mulder a hard time for no good reason" is not the motivation of any running character.

The omnipotent villain is the refuge of writers not smart enough to make them as smart as they're supposed to be. Randomness becomes an excuse for intelligence. But as Kate illustrates with Agatha Christie, a brilliant detective can find plenty of challenges solving ordinary crimes.

Both Lie to Me and currently Person of Interest also do a better job at getting the balance right. Most of the stories are about fairly average people burdened with fairly average problems that have gotten way out of hand and so have to be solved in interesting ways.

In fact, the premise of Person of Interest explicitly states that they won't get cases that involve the world ending as we know it.

On the other hand, a recent episode maneuvered the good guys into a no-win moral dilemma, which I consider equally problematic. Pretty much all of The Dark Knight consists of this manufactured "depth." Reproducing the vagaries of real life doesn't make fiction "better."

Spider-Man and Batman and the rest of the superheros would be a lot more interesting if the bad guys were a lot less bad and were a lot more predictable.

Related posts

The Big Bad
Lying to The Mentalist
Demon City libertarianism
The Problem of the Omniscient Enemy

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March 17, 2012

Mormonism & American Politics

I watched this forum on C-SPAN the other night. Haglund's memories of Romney as her stake president summed it up for me. Theologically and politically, his one true religion is pragmatism. In a weird way, it's reassuring to know Romney probably doesn't "believe" in any ideology, besides "what works." All in all, it's an interesting and remarkably fair discussion.

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March 15, 2012

Let's you and her fight

Throughout the Warring States and Edo periods, women of samurai lineage were specifically trained in the naginata. Demonstration matches pitting a naginata against a shinai (bamboo sword) are commonly held at meets.

The wives of medieval warlords often donned samurai armor, took up the defense of a besieged castle, and occasionally engaged the enemy on the battlefield. Documented examples include Lady Hangaku and Tomoe Gozen.

Judô, archery, and kendô remain staples of the Japanese high school physical education curriculum for both sexes. The Ministry of Education recently made Japanese martial arts a required subject in junior high school.

However, concerns have been raised in particular about the judô requirement, due to a lack of qualified coaches, and students suffering the kind of head and neck injuries often associated with American football.

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March 12, 2012

Book 'em, Bezos

Remember You've Got Mail, in which Tom Hanks is a thinly-disguised Barnes & Noble executive who runs all those quaint independent booksellers out of business? Maybe they can remake it with Meg Ryan as a thinly-disguised Jeff Bezos who runs B&N out of business.

B&N is in the same quandary as Netflix, trying to shift from a physical to an electronic retail space. The more their Nook-branded tablet and ereaders succeed, the more they lose money. They could, as the saying goes, make it up on volume, but lack Amazon's deep pockets.

Netflix recovered unchallenged from its self-inflicted blunders, showing how difficult it is to get retail right. Google simply can't grasp the concept. Recently, five "traditional" book publishers tried to make up for their incompetence by forming a price maintenance cartel with Apple.

All to keep Amazon from discounting books. Amazon was still paying the same wholesale prices as before. And Amazon still discounts books printed on paper, along with everything else under the sun, just like every other big box retailer in the country.

This is actually another example of the damage caused by DRM. The irony is that Amazon sold the music industry on DRM-free MP3s as a way of escaping Apple's walled garden. Right now, ebook vendors have to support a reader and a format, and pay Adobe a vig for the privilege.

This arrangement favors Amazon and Apple (Apple is hardly betting the farm), but leaves the rest with steep costs of entry, too steep in the case of Borders. Plus, it puts publishers at the mercy of a handful of ereader manufacturers. Hardly surprising that they'd try to fix the game.

The nuttiest thing about it--indicative of a dreadfully old-school mindset--is that nothing prevents publishers from selling their own product. As Seth Godin puts it, publishers still think they're in the paper products business.

A more apt analogy can be found in the early 1950s, when a new electronic medium (television) and an antitrust action (United States v. Paramount Pictures) nearly drove the venerable Hollywood studios into the ditch.

What saved them was the realization they weren't in the theater business, but in the content provider business. The other day, I noticed that the Blockbuster store I've driven past for over twenty years is closing its doors. George Santayana could have seen that one coming.

Later this year, if and when Smashwords follows through on allowing uploading of ePub files, it will have usurped the business model--becoming the Ingram and Lightning Source of independent ebooks--that the "Big Six" publishers should have been pursuing from the start.

Related posts

Hey, watch this!
Blockbuster goes bankrupt

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March 08, 2012

Qi Men Dun Jia

The Qi Men Dun Jia (奇門遁甲) is a school of astrology based on astronomical observations and Chinese metaphysics. It  is widely used today, as a component of the Luo Pan or Feng Shui compass.

As with blood type divination, the conviction that important activities should be initiated on "auspicious dates" has not diminished in Japan, Korea and China, modernity notwithstanding (or, as with blood type, thanks to modernity).

Of course, as they say, there's an app for that (note the magic square in the center of the compass circle).

In Japanese and Chinese folklore, the more tails a fox spirit has--as many as nine--the more powerful it is.

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March 05, 2012

BOMM business lessons

Eduardo Braniff has discovered that pretty much everything anyone needs to know about business (and life) can be gleaned from The Book Of Mormon Musical, which he helpfully sums up in the this short Fast Company article.

1. Taboos Shall Set You Free: [E]xperiences that afford us new behaviors and engender new beliefs are the ones we remember. So rather than preach the gospel, let's preach the forbidden.

Keep in mind the context. There are two problems with applying this too broadly. The first is to embrace heresy for the sake of heresy ("I offend, therefore I am"). The other is being unique for the sake of being unique, an idea that David Goldman argues has had "cataclysmic consequences in the arts."

2. Let the Philistines Past the Gate: I firmly believe that only an outsider would have been able to pull off The Book of Mormon on Broadway, and I'm not talking an off-off-off-Broadway outsider.

Not just a Broadway outsider, a non-Mormon. This goes back to 1. When Mormons (or adherents of any stripe) dip their toes into heresy, the temptation is to beat a particular dead horse with Too Much Information. Or contrariwise, to completely miss the forest for the trees.

The most problematic taboos are the ones that evolve in an organization without anybody knowing why, without anybody questioning why. But because adherence to them signals loyalty to the organization, they're treated more seriously than commandments from on high.

3. The Gospel According to Anyone: As much as we read about values-based corporate and brand cultures, it's shocking how slow enterprises have been to define and live by their own gospels. No matter where or what, people want to believe.

Enterprises? It's shocking how slow churches are to define and live by their own gospels (you can't be held to your word if nobody knows what it is), or how willing they are to kick their gospels to the curb when they become inconvenient.

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March 01, 2012

Internal exile

During the Warring States period of the 16th century, defeated samurai were regularly exiled to Mt. Kôya. The lucky ones, like Kyôgoku Takatsugu, were confined there for only a few months.

In the run-up to the Battle of Sekigahara, Takatsugu swore allegiance to Ieyasu Tokugawa, despite being the lord of a castle deep in the territory controlled by Ishida Mitsunari, Ieyasu's arch-rival.

That the younger sister of Takatsugu's wife had married into the Tokugawa clan and Ieyasu had since proved himself a very generous in-law surely had something to do with the decision.

When his castle was besieged by overwhelming forces, Takatsugu surrendered and was exiled to Mt. Kôya. After Ieyasu defeated Mitsunari, Takatsugu was restored to his position and richly rewarded for his loyalty.

But a few, such as the unfortunate Toyotomi Hidetsugu, never left. He'd been Toyotomi Hideyoshi's heir apparent until Hideyoshi quite unexpectedly produced two sons (one who survived childhood) by Lady Yodo.

Hideyoshi started out crazy as a fox. At the end of his life he turned just plain crazy. In a paranoid rage, he ruthlessly eliminated anybody who might possibly challenge his son's succession after he died.

That meant Hidetsugu. Hidetsugu was exiled to Mt. Kôya on trumped-up charges of sedition, and later ordered to commit seppuku. Hidetsugu's entire family was subsequently executed.

Ironically, Tokugawa Ieyasu was one of the five warlords Hideyoshi appointed to serve as his son's regents. Ieyasu eventually did (had intended to do all along) exactly what Hidetsugu was accused of.

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