June 30, 2014

Why Americans like sports

As with most Theories of Everything, this will be an exercise in massive generalizations, gross oversimplifications, and carefree stereotyping.

For example, I'll leave out popular sports like skating and gymnastics (except at the end) where the "score" depends on an ultimately subjective evaluation of an athletic performance.

My next leap of logic is to define the popularity of a sport by the amount of regular weekend coverage on network television. Events periodically covered, like the Olympics, the World Cup, and Grand Slam tennis tournaments, don't count.

That makes limiting the field easy, leaving us with: football, basketball, baseball, golf, and NASCAR.

Two complaints commonly voiced about soccer are low scores and ties. Ties, yes. But football and baseball games can also be low scoring. A baseball game where a single pitcher allows no hits, errors, or runs is described as "perfect."

One of the biggest complaints voiced in turn about American sports is more telling: all that stopping and starting and time-outs that stretch a one-hour football game to three hours.

While I would agree that time-outs get mightily abused in basketball and football (and baseball could use some speeding up), the stopping and starting actually gets to the heart of the matter.

Because the stopping and starting is what makes a sport popular on American television. Specifically, the strategy of stopping and starting.

Yep, that's why the crashes matter in NASCAR too. Not only as a model of evolutionary bottlenecking, but because pitting at the right time--under green or risking waiting for a yellow--can make the difference at the end of the race.

All sports make you wonder what will happen next. The most popular American sports invite the viewer to anticipate the strategies each team will take next, and then watch to see if those predictions pay off when play resumes.

Thus the sport has to appeal to the armchair quarterbacks and backseat drivers and wannabee coaches and managers, who also demand that their predictions and expectations pay off quickly.

American football is designed to do just that, which has made it the blockbuster of spectator sports in America. As does golf, which commands comparably tiny audiences but is given saturation coverage most summer weekends.

Any paunchy, middle-aged man can imagine what he would do on the golf course if he had a swing like Tiger Woods, because every once in a great while, that paunchy, middle-aged man will hit a golf ball as well as Tiger Woods.

No, not imagine playing. Imagine strategizing: in this situation, that is what I would do. It's what every little kid playing sandlot football does when squats down in the huddle and traces a down-and-out on the palm of his hand.

The time-outs and game breaks give the coaches and players time to plan the next moves, the viewers time to take a breather and wonder, and the commentators time to examine the stats and discuss all the options when play resumes.

I had a World Cup game on last week as background noise (if anybody scores, it'll get replayed). No discussion of on-field strategies ever came up. Because there was nothing to discuss except what was happening right now.

Rather, soccer teams are described as personalities that shape the player interaction and the game as a whole. Nothing can be said about what will or won't happen at minute 1 or minute 89, except that 22 players will be kicking a ball around.

Want to "live in the moment"? Then soccer is for you. The moment is all you've got and it lasts for an hour and a half. As Dan observed in my last post on the subject:

There is a good portion of a game [of soccer] where there is no offense. Rather the players just push the ball forward and then fall back into defense. Why exhaust oneself to score a goal when the odds are so steep against it happening? [As a result], much of what happens in the game is inconsequential and everyone knows it.

I previously compared soccer to basketball, except with goaltending. Other than the obvious comparison to hockey, soccer also like tennis, slowed way down. Once the ball is in play, the action is real-time and mostly reflexive.

It's all about the now, and what the players are going to do right now is impossible to predict.

The offense will either do something brilliant--on the spur of the moment--or the defense will do something stupid--on the spur of the moment. This is what makes soccer a "performance" sport rather than a "strategy" sport.

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
The gymnast not falling off the balance beam, the skater not falling at the end of a jump, can be the difference between winning and losing. But while "not falling" may be a pleasant surprise, it isn't a strategy. It's a desire (or a desperate hope). It's all about the surprise at something unexpected happening.

Of course, in the end, all popular sports are performance sports judged by their highlight reels. But "American" sports (as defined above) are highlight machines designed to produce high-performance moments that negate the mistakes. Don't be the goat!

Soccer is watched for the unanticipated occurrences of its unpredictable performances, where a single bad roll of the dice can decide a championship.

The American football fan watches a game knowing there will probably be a couple of great passes, a couple of great runs, a couple of great interceptions, a couple of big hits, a couple of long kicks, and a couple of touchdowns.

As the clock winds down, the team behind will take bigger and bigger chances with bigger and bigger plays, and some of them will pay off, but as part of an overall strategy.

The soccer fan knows that something will happen. Maybe even a goal! Maybe. Beyond that, who knows? Maybe this time . . . Well, lotteries are hugely popular around the world too, despite the long--and totally random--odds.

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June 26, 2014

Poseidon of the East (25)

As best I can surmise, here are the European equivalents of royalty in the Twelve Kingdoms.

  • 王 (ou) emperor or empress.
  • 公爵 (koushaku) the duke (the Taiho).
  • 公 (kou) a prince of the realm; members of the Sankou: ministers of right, left, and privy seal.
  • 侯 (kou) a province lord or marquis (nine total); may also include the prime minister.
  • 伯 (haku) a count (British earl) or minister.
  • 卿伯 (keihaku) an undersecretary or vice minister.
  • 卿 (kei) a viscount or province minister.
  • 大夫 (daibu) a baron; three subdivisions of baron: upper (上), middle (中), lower (下).
  • 士 (shi) a knight (samurai) or gentleman; three subdivisions of knight: upper (上), middle (中), lower (下).

Atsuyu is referred to as a keihaku (卿伯).

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June 23, 2014

Making soccer worth watching

Every four years when the World Cup rolls around, American Exceptionalism once again rises to the fore as Americans by and large demonstrate their exceptional indifference to the world's most popular team sport.

To be sure, that's becoming less true by the year. Even Salt Lake City has a professional soccer club. And soccer is certainly a good way to get kids to run around outdoors without the risk of bodily injury from playing American football (and the huge cost).

The World Cup rings up respectable ratings in the U.S. simply by being rare enough and weird enough to draw in the curious. Thanks to its sheer excess and pageantry, the Olympics likewise gets millions to watch sporting events we never would otherwise.

Even so, most World Cup matches don't draw enough attention to escape the walled garden of ESPN. Meanwhile, NHK shuffles its schedule to broadcast World Cup matches (which, for licensing reasons, viewers of TV Japan are spared from viewing).

At times like this, I, who do not care that much about sports in general, am happy to care even less about soccer. But in the abstract, I am intrigued.

My international satellite TV package includes One World Sports. It reminds me of ESPN way back in the day when ESPN would carry any obscure athletic activity to fill 24 hours of programming. Stuff like cricket, snooker, badminton, and darts.

Plus lots of soccer.

So channel surfing around, now and then I'll end up watching five minutes here and there. At first, I was impressed by all the skillful passing going on. And then I realized it was mostly going on mid-field. And then I realized that nothing else was happening.

If the ball got anywhere near the goal, the defense simply fell back into the goalie box and turned the game into human bumper pool. Once everybody crowded in there, there was no "strategy," only a lot of randomly lunging and knocking the ball around.

And occasionally even knocking it into the net. A goal in soccer occasions such elation because it is such an unusual occurrence. As The Simpsons so aptly described the sport: "It's all here: fast-kickin', low scorin'. And ties? You bet!"

Then it struck me: soccer is what basketball would look like if goaltending was allowed. There was no shot clock. And the fast break was prohibited.

We'd be talking boring, low scoring games where the offense would somehow have to power through to the basket and slam the ball through the hoop without fouling anybody, or catch the defense so out of position it was incapable of blocking the shot.

Meaning that the most interesting games in soccer, paradoxically, are those when one team completely outclasses its opponent, or neither team has much of a defense (the very definition of a dull contest in football, basketball, or baseball).

But these are problems that can be easily fixed.

Getting rid of the offside rule is only the first step. The dumbest rule in all of sports, it's emblematic of a game absurdly weighted in favor of the defense (second dumbest: the secret time clock).

A physically bigger goal would help (in hockey too), twice as wide and arced (or make the blasted field smaller). That still wouldn't eliminate the bumper pool defense.

Here's what soccer really needs: basketball's 3-second and goaltending rules. In soccer, though, the 3-second rule would apply to the defense. Call it the "onside" rule:

Aside from the goalie, no defensive player shall remain inside the goalie box for more than 3 seconds unless the ball or an offensive player is also inside the goalie box.

Corner kicks would be like free throws. Nobody (except the goalie) could step into the goalie box until the ball was kicked.

These changes would make strategy and tactics a critical part of the equation. That is, setting up and executing specific plays with a high likelihood of producing desired results, rather than devolving into a life-sized illustration of Brownian motion.

During a corner kick, where would the offense position themselves? Would they group together or spread apart? Would the defense cover them man-to-man or attempt zone coverage? The kicker would need to signal where or to whom he would kick the ball.

A player dribbling the ball downfield would similarly need to decide whether to enter the goalie box, drawing the defense along with him, or pass to a teammate behind the defense but not in the goalie box, making possible a one-on-one fast break.

And while I'm at it, I'd allow hitting the ball with the hands, volleyball-style. Because deliberately hitting a fast-moving object with your head is really, really stupid.

Of course, one could counter that at some point, soccer would cease to be soccer. But consider how often the rules of basketball have changed over the past fifty years: the size of the key, the three-point shot, the zone defense, the shot clock, jump shots.

Come to think about it, basketball still favors the offense too much. Goaltending should be permitted if a defensive player jumps from outside the paint. That should make the game more interesting.

Not that I'd be likely to watch in any case (unless I was really bored and there was nothing else on).

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June 19, 2014

Poseidon of the East (24)

This chapter describes a prominent bureaucrat as a "man so busily engaged in pilfering the public treasury he had no interest in plotting political conspiracies or leading insurrections."

And yet, at least in the short term, Shouryuu would rather appoint him a province lord. Making the best of a bad situation, a greedy rich man worries him less than a Machiavellian politician interested primarily in power.

You can "follow the money"; money can be audited, tracked, taxed. Fortunes poorly managed dissipate quickly. If Elizabeth and Darcy's children didn't pinch their pennies, Pemberley would go bankrupt by the end of the century.

We applaud politicians who make "deals." But the fairness of a deal made in the proverbial smoke-filled room, sealed with a handshake during a round of golf, is much harder to ascertain, if we're aware of it at all.

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June 16, 2014

Japanese TV updates

Two live-action Japanese television series I previously discussed (here and here) are now streaming on Crunchyroll.

In No Dropping Out, the fabulous Ryoko Yonekura is a screwed-up overaged high school student attending a screwed-up high school. And in I'm Mita, Your Housekeeper, the creepy Nanako Matsushima takes over a screwed-up middle-class family.

Despite the dark mood starting out, both are essentially ripped-from-the-headlines, problem-of-the-week series with over-the-top plotting that come to (overly) sentimental happy endings.

But they give you a fun, hugely melodramatic ride getting there. Though the sentimentality in No Dropping Out does end up inadvertently turning it instead into a parable about the difficulty of changing hidebound social institutions.

Because no matter how bad the status quo sucks, we're suckers for the devil we know. Like the extremely competent but sociopathic housekeeper you just can bear to let go.

Related posts

The Housekeeper
Ryoko Yonekura

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June 12, 2014

Poseidon of the East (23)

David Brooks commented a few weeks ago on Charlie Rose about how law and order counts for more in most people's mind than "reform," however high-minded. Especially if the status quo is yielding observable results. Shouryuu is counting on being the devil they all know.

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June 09, 2014

On Your Mark

As previously mentioned, singer Aska's arrest for meth possession had the silver lining of reminding Hayao Miyazaki fans of a music video he directed for Chage & Aska back in 1995. Alas, this flurry of publicity resulted in the video getting pulled from an upcoming box set.

The video was originally released with two Chage & Aska tracks: "On Your Mark" (Japanese lyrics) and "Castles in the Air" (English lyrics). "Castles in the Air" strikes me as much more relevant to the specific content and was probably written with the video in mind.

Miyazaki tells a complete story, albeit in a non-linear fashion. There are echoes of Castle in the Sky and the flying gunships go back to his first Studio Ghibli film, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and even Blade Runner (that had a profound effect on the anime aesthetic).

Perhaps most tellingly, in the opening sequence of Nausicaa, a similar girl with wings appears in the "prophesy scroll."

All fused with the time-rewind plot device that dominates the Tom Cruise sci-fi flick, Edge of Tomorrow. (Incidentally, Edge of Tomorrow is based on All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, illustrations by Yoshitoshi ABe. Yes, there is an official translation.)

It's tempting to interpret the opening sequence in the video as a commentary on the March 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system by the Aum Shinri Kyo cult and the subsequent police raids. But production of the video had already been completed by then.

In this interview, Miyazaki points to the 1989 Chernobyl meltdown (the massive sarcophagus looming above the abandoned town). He would have been aware of the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. (If it bleeds in the U.S., it leads in Japan too.)

Of course, Occam's Razor also suggests that Miyazaki stitched the script together with whatever spare narrative parts were lying around at the time. He admits to sifting through the lyrics and making them mean what he wanted them to mean.

But for those of us who delight in deconstructing pop-culture sci-fi texts (regardless of authorial intent), you can find a summary of the story here and way too much analysis here.

There are several versions of the video floating around the Internet. You can find versions of "On Your Mark" on YouTube. Even if you don't understand Japanese (and frankly that doesn't help much either), it's a heckuva performance.

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June 05, 2014

Poseidon of the East (22)

This year's Japan Booksellers Award went to Murakami Kaizoku no Musume ("Daughter of the Murakami Pirates") by Ryo Wada. The novel takes place a century after the events described here, when the three Murakami pirate clans faced off against the warlord Oda Nobunaga.

After the assassination of Oda Nobunaga, the Kurushima clan sided with Nobunaga's successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, triggering a four century-long family feud.

These Inland Sea pirates were more like seafaring organized crime families than the "Blackbeard" sort. Besides their legitimate businesses, they controlled key sea routes and took a cut of the action (legal and illegal), offered "protection," and rented out their "services."

Describing the territory of the Komatsu clan, Shouryuu uses the colloquial expression, "the size of a cat's forehead" (neko no hitai), meaning a small, cramped space.

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June 02, 2014

Reefer madness

The two social upheavals that ushered Japan into the modern age—the Meiji Restoration (1868) and the Occupation (1945-1952)—were imposed upon and accepted by the populace with such efficiency and acquiescence that the existing status quo was never truly displaced.

It simply stepped to the side to make room for yet another political order, as it had several times before. The result is a society simultaneously running multiple operating systems, a living paradox that few Japanese feel compelled to settle or resolve.

The traditional adorns the post-modern, the very old lives beside the very new, with no fear of the one displacing the other. Japan's economy presents a model of "flattened" capitalism dreamed of by Piketty and his peers, that at the same time preserves the baked-in social stratification left over from 250 years of Tokugawa rule.

Extreme permissiveness thrives alongside extraordinary conformity. In a society that at times appears devoid of moral limits, a police force with almost unfettered powers ruthlessly enforces the lines that must not be crossed. With few checks and balances, the accused are presumed guilty until predictably found guilty.

The most recent case of a crossed line is Ryo Aska, the "Aska" (on the right) in the popular rock duo of Chage & Aska. When he got busted last month for possession of ecstasy and meth, the boom was lowered on him like a battered ram.

It's a case that might bring to mind the travails of Robert Downey Jr. from a decade or so ago. Except that when Robert Downey Jr. ended up behind bars, Walmart didn't immediately sweep the shelves clean of any movie or television series in which he had ever appeared for fear that his sins would taint their good name.

Aska should be so lucky if he only had to worry about the ire of the retailers. Reports the Wall Street Journal:

Chage and Aska's label, Universal Music LLC, released a statement Monday saying it would halt shipments of all of the duo's works and retrieve all previously distributed products from stores.

Yes, there is such a thing as bad publicity. The way the Japanese media treats it—including the stolid NHK—you'd think Eliot Ness just nabbed Al Capone (and all before any formal indictment or arraignment). Michael Cucek sees this laissez-faire-meets-iron-fist approach as part of a nationwide scared-straight strategy:

By selectively, infrequently, but mercilessly applying themselves to cases, the police and the courts [in Japan] create strong incentives for the citizens to police themselves . . . Tak[ing] note of what happens to those who become trapped in the pit of the law (don't call it "justice") system, [they] will strive, of their own volition, to never, ever become trapped in that system themselves.

On the other hand, do keep in mind the words "selectively and "infrequently." The incarceration rate in Japan is 55/100,000 population, compared to 149/100,000 in Britain and 716/100,000 in the U.S. Unless he's an idiot, Aska is unlikely to do "hard time."

A silver lining briefly glimmered as the scandal brought to light the obscure "On Your Mark" music video Hayao Miyazaki created for Chage & Aska back in 1995. But it only came to light because the release of a box set of Miyazaki's films was delayed so—you guessed it—the offending title could be removed from the collection.

Appropriately penitent.
If Ryo Aska is a good boy and plays according to the script, he'll eventually be rehabilitated. Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, a member of the aging boy band SMAP, could give him some pointers. Back in 2009, Kusanagi was arrested in Tokyo's Hinokicho Park at three in the morning, drunk as a skunk and buck naked.

Kusanagi only had to spend a month in the wilderness. He donned the requisite sackcloth and ashes and "Tokyo prosecutors decided against indicting Kusanagi because he had expressed regret and had already suffered social embarrassment."

Aska, however, is accused of a more serious felony. Robert Downey Jr. ended up sentenced to an "extended stay in rehab." Aska can at best hope to follow the example of singer Noriko Sakai.

In August 2009, Sakai received a three-year suspended sentence for drug abuse (a tiny amount of meth). Even before sentencing, she had lost all of her endorsement deals, her clothing line was pulled from stores across Japan, and her record label withdrew her CDs from distribution and suspended downloads of her songs.

Her entertainment career didn't resume until November 2012.

Right now, the big decision before Aska is making the carefully-timed transition from proclaiming his innocence to bowing and scraping and publicly atoning for his personal failings. And then figuring out what to do until he can start working gigs again.

Related posts

On Your Mark
Lawyering up
Justice for all (Japanese)
(Less) crime and (less) punishment

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