September 27, 2012

How could this not be a real show?

There's a rule in Hollywood that all television series must eventually make a self-referential episode where the characters end up in a "reality" show about the show, or visit the set of a television show based on the "real" characters they portray.

Seinfeld dragged out the conceit for a whole season, but Seinfeld was about Jerry Seinfeld to start with, so it was meta all along. Bones did an episode last season, though it was entirely too self-aware to be as fun or clever as it could have been.

But sometimes it totally pays off. Stargate SG-1 gets the prize for taking the concept to meta-meta land in the funniest, cleverest version ever. An alien rescued in a previous episode turns to screenwriting after getting bored and running away from the Witness Protection Program.

The television show he comes up with, Wormhole X-treme, is based on the "real" (super-duper classified) SGC, so the team is sent to Hollywood to figure out what the heck is going on.

The first smart thing the "real" Stargate does is have General Hammond point out that if any classified information about the SGC does leak out, they'll blame the television show as the source. No need for an elaborate cover-up.

Because, aside from the X-Files, which had the running joke of Mulder getting critical intel from the tabloids, the conspiracy theory as a plot driver wears awfully thin after a while.

Person of Interest is my favorite television show right now, but there's no need for government agents to go around whacking every person who figures out the existence of the "Machine." Pass out more tinfoil hats. The loonies already think they're being watched by the government anyway.

People will keep believing what they already believe (and believe it more when they're being "convinced" not to), and disbelieve what they are predisposed not to believe in.

As when a "real" spaceship descends to the set of the "fake" show. The special effects guy shrugs and says, "Yeah, okay, we'll fix it in post." And all during the shooting of the show-within-the-show, the actors complain constantly about the insufficiently "realistic" parts of the "fake" script.

It's a tribute to every geek fan who simply can't suspend belief past a certain point (like me).

But the real brilliance comes in the last five minutes, a special "making of" segment about the making of a television show that isn't even a real television show. It starts out with Christian Bocher (a real actor) breaking through a half-dozen fourth walls in less than a minute:

I'm Christian Bocher. I'm portraying the character of Raymond Gunn, who portrays the character of Dr. Levant which is based on the character Daniel Jackson portrayed by the actor, Michael Shanks. Originally portrayed by the actor James Spader, in the feature film.

And then the director (Peter DeLuise, the real director) explains to the"fake" lead actor (Michael DeLuise playing Nick Marlowe playing Colonel Danning, i.e., Colonel Jack O'Neill played by Richard Dean Anderson) that the show he's been cast in isn't a "real" show.

The bewildered man finally throws up his hands and declaims:

"How could this not be a real show?"

That's seriously up there with the sound of one hand clapping and trees falling unheard in forests, a question so deceptively deep that it deserves its own school of philosophical thought.

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September 24, 2012

Riotous times

Every few years, with suspiciously convenient timing, the Chinese populace decides en masse that a few acres of volcanic rock in the middle of the East China Sea is the MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD!!!

This time around, at least, geography has edged out history, or the Chinese leadership simply can't muster the galactic chutzpah to complain about the accuracy of Japanese middle grade history textbooks.

We're talking about a country, after all, that has a hard time telling the truth about what happened last week, and where nothing of historical importance apparently happened between 1949 and 1989.

In this game of international tag team wrestling, this year that job was left to South Korea in its geographical dispute with Japan over yet another outcropping of uninhabited volcanic rock.

Meanwhile, Russians living in Tokyo blithely lead unaccosted lives despite Stalin having stolen ("fair and square") the very much inhabited South Kurils ("a non-disputed part of Japan") in 1945.

Whatever the cause, the enraged public then sets about torching Toyota factories, dealerships, and the like, oblivious to the fact that Japanese don't own the franchises or work at them. The Toyota Camry

is produced in Guangzhou with 80 per cent local content and 100 per cent local labour . . . All of the Japanese automakers have state-owned Chinese partners that will also be missing out on sales of Japanese cars.

Having run out of convenient targets, the rioters next attack "Japanese" businesses like McDonald's, Samsung, and Rolex. (The flipside, I guess, of the Japanese propensity to tag any Caucasian foreigner as "American.")

The more interesting question is what makes $345 billion in trade a toy Chinese dictators would risk playing financial chicken with. Three possibilities spring to mind:

1) The average guy on the street can't protest against the government (without going straight to jail) and so takes the opportunity to protest against whatever else is available (the U.S. busy being rioted against elsewhere).

The problem is, wildfires are hard to put out once lit, as Monday's home-grown riot at a Foxconn factory demonstrates.

2) The much heralded transition to the new regime is generating more friction behind the scenes than anticipated, as illustrated by leader designate Xi Jinping's mysterious two-week sabbatical. The government needed a distraction.

3) A distraction from the economical situation as well. China's real economy is headed south faster than a Roadrunner with a Coyote on its heels, as illustrated by this banking strategy straight out of The Producers:

Chinese authorities are investigating a number of cases in which steel documented in receipts was either not there, belonged to another company or had been pledged as collateral to multiple lenders, industry sources said.

Speaking of Broadway productions, a verbatim conversation:

Hebei fellow: Where should we go?
Policeman: Are you here to work, or to protest?
Hebei lady: Umm, protest.
Policeman (pointing across the road): That way and turn right.

And in Shanghai, the Wall Street Journal reports that, aware of the "Pottery Barn rule" for foreign consulates ("You break it, you pay for it"), the mayor was eager to avoid a repeat of the last and very costly rampage.

This week's Shanghai protests were smaller and more orderly, and indeed some protesters got transported to the scene by police. As they were corralled between riot barriers protecting the consulate, demonstrators were stripped of any eggs and bottles.

Observed one of Peter Payne's Japanese employees, "It's just a festival they hold every few years." The "Kremlin watching" of the good old Cold War days has evolved into riot watching.

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September 20, 2012

Winging it

In a comment on the previous post, I describe Romney-the-politician as a seasoned stake president (literally!) who's spent (a few too many) years behind the pulpit.

Here's why. Because of the lay structure of local congregations, Mormon leaders get adept at winging it behind the pulpit, padding out worship services, filling in for missing speakers on the spur of the moment. Even I, a clinical introvert, harbor no dread of public speaking thanks to my years in church.

Unfortunately, "winging it" is antithetical to predictability and reliability, which is why, to the dismay of historians (and anti-Mormons) who feast on the often wacky sermons of yore, modern Mormon General Conference talks are heavily vetted and thoroughly teleprompted.

Romney has become overconfident winging it, and his off-the-cuff remarks prove it. As Joe says, it's hard to think deeply when speaking extemporaneously, and a common recourse is to fall back on false syllogisms. And as Dan points out, the "47 percent" number is comically imprecise to start with.

As a starving artist, I belong to the 47 percent. I haven't paid income taxes in years. But believe me, the check I cut to the IRS to cover all my other tax obligations ain't pocket change. Still, get rid of that silly number and Romney makes a valid point: "middle class" is a state of mind.

People (and corporations) who ought not to do become dependent upon government, do believe that they are victims, do believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, do believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, "to you name it."

I don't think of myself as either "poor" or "entitled" (though I'm not so principled that I'll turn away the blessings of state paternalism when push comes to shove). I'm a middle class kid undergoing a momentary financial setback (that's gone on for about a decade).

Incidentally, this is why comparing health care systems is problematic, because how much a country like Japan spends on health care depends a great deal on what its citizens expect out of health care, what they feel "entitled" to. The average Japanese feels entitled to a lot less than the average American.

It's much easier to build an affordable social safety net when it doesn't have to hold the entire population, when the average person avoids testing its strength. During its Great Recession, Japan had low unemployment rates, a product of the social stigma and meager unemployment insurance.

For this reason, my sense is, on this issue, Romney ends up being right even when he's wrong. Other that huffing and puffing commentators who live to be offended, average people who hear him say that will think: Well, that's not me, even when it is. That's why Rush Limbaugh wishes Romney said it on purpose.

Alas, he didn't. Romney, to his credit, is a pragmatist and a problem solver. He's not a man with bedrock political principles who, like Reagan, spent years honing the rhetorical skills required to defend and explain them.

He's just winging it.

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September 17, 2012

How they say it

Even before Mitt Romney gave his big acceptance speech at the Republican convention, the pundits were dissecting how he spoke as much as what he said. It's good to remember John Althouse Cohen's observation that

Most ordinary citizens who tried to run for president would probably come off as wooden and unhip. The candidate who can "connect" with most people is actually unlike most people.

But applying Occam's Razor to the question of how, there's a simple explanation for why Romney gives a speech the way he does.

As Orson Scott Card describes here, the Mormon church is the equivalent of Toastmasters International. Local churches are run by a lay clergy, so the average member ends up giving lots of sermons (Mormons call them "talks").

Because the church promotes exclusively from within, this mutually-reinforcing speaking style influences, and is highly influenced by, how high church officials speak.

The gold standard of Mormon sermonizing is the church's semiannual General Conference. There's one coming up in October. It'll be on cable. Or go here and see where Mitt Romney learned how to talk in public.

My sister hears some of Thomas Monson's mannerisms in Romney's speeches. I've been not listening to Monson as long as I've been alive (he's been a big Mormon Pooh-Bah that long), and Romney's not that bad.

I say not listening because the way Monson delivers a talk drives me nuts. I really do believe he's 100 percent sincere, and millions hang on his every word. But there's certainly no accounting for rhetorical taste.

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September 13, 2012

Japan in the time of cholera

From the mid-19th century to the early 20th, Japan experienced cholera epidemics on the scale of the 1918 flu pandemic. Controls on internal migration during the Edo period vanished after the Meiji Restoration. The ancient sewers couldn't handle the exploding urban populations.

Japan suffered at least seven major outbreaks of cholera between 1858 and 1902. The Ansei outbreak of 1858-60, for example, is believed to have killed between 100,000 and 200,000 people in Tokyo alone.

(The Ansei epidemic figures prominently in the time travel series Jin, as our valiant doctor from the future battles the outbreak with 21st century knowledge and 19th century resources.)

In a perverse irony, the situation was worsened by endemic beri-beri, which came on the heels of dietary "improvements" (increased production and consumption of polished white rice), though the recurring famines of the past two centuries ceased.

(Dr. Jin Minakata invents the thiamine-enriched doughnut to address that problem.)

Japan's sudden opening to the west also meant that "foreign" pathogens were being introduced into the population at a velocity the Japan had never experienced before. Its last contact with Europe in the 16th century was a trickle by comparison.

But it was a foreigner who came to the rescue. I've heard Japanese unironically compare the British engineer W. K. Burton, who designed Tokyo's first modern sewer system, to Jesus.

Japan now boasts one of the healthiest populations on the planet. In the long term, I think the speed and extent of international travel has actually reduced the odds of a 1918 flu epidemic happening today.

As Matt Ridley points out in Wired Magazine, apocalyptic epidemics now have the habit of evaporating like desert mirages. There aren't any truly "virgin" populations left for viruses to work their havoc on. The mills of Darwinian selection grind slowly but inexorably.

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September 10, 2012

World Order

What does a mixed martial artist and kickboxer do with those unique skills after he retires? Well, if he's Genki Sudo, he forms a quirky band/dance ensemble called "World Order." It feature seven men in business suits moving in precisely choreographed routines, often in public venues. In this music video, Sudo starts out in front (i.e., the one who fills out a suit quite unlike the typical "salaryman").

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September 03, 2012

Fish Story

Inspired by the horrible mistranslation of a book (that will never be published), the bassist for a 1970s punk band (whose records hardly anybody will buy) writes a song (that nobody understands) and saves the world from destruction. This is one whale of a Fish Story.

Starting only a few hours before a giant comet collides with the Earth, and jumping backwards and forwards through time, Fish Story documents a half-century chain of unpredictable cause and effect as it traces this trail of breadcrumbs to its near-apocalyptic conclusion.

A story that could have easily succumbed to art house ponderousness instead allows the absurd premise to play the straight man to the darkly comical cascade of not-quite-coincidences that follow. The result is a plot that is surprisingly comprehensible and thoroughly enjoyable.

By the time we get to the irresistibly cute Mikako Tabe, who resists being taken too seriously even when being held hostage on a ferry boat by a murderous doomsday religious cult, we're more than ready for a seat-of-the-pants solution straight out of Red Dwarf.

Despite its convoluted narrative structure, Fish Story never tries to be anything less than obvious. In the process, it quite cleverly points out how misunderstandings take on lives of their own, and how willing we are to read great meaning into literally nothing.

This is an important message for writers and politicians alike: what you wrote or said means what everybody but you thinks it means, not what you meant.

For those put off by non-linear storytelling, rest assured that a montage at the end knits the key incidents together into a single timeline, like the answer to a tricky algebra question at the back of the book. In any case, Fish Story just made me grin, and that's enough.

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