March 30, 2015

Curated a la carte

I puzzle mightily at the extent to which Netflix segregates its streaming and DVD catalogs. If you're a DVD subscriber, there's no way to find out what's in the streaming catalog. Not using the Netflix website, that is.

On Hulu and Crunchyroll, the options are front and center: "Subscribe to watch premium content right now!" Amazon provides all the options available for every title in its catalog. Want to stream it? Want the DVD? Want the book? Click here!

But Netflix treats this information like a state secret.

Back in 2011, Netflix announced that it was splitting itself in two, turning the mail-order and streaming video businesses into separate and distinct corporate entities. In the face of a customer revolt, it quickly reversed that decision.

According to the abandoned plans, the streaming business would retain the name "Netflix." Since that's where they clearly saw things heading, why not entice the Luddites to join them? Why not dangle all those sparkly gems in front of our eyes?

A few possibilities spring to mind:

  • Netflix still intends to separate the businesses: it spent zero dollars in 2014 marketing its (profitable) DVD business;
  • It had already hewn the databases apart and is not about to glue them back together;
  • Netflix would rather its customers not think about what's in its catalog.

I'm serious about the last one. Nobody would design a website this crappy by accident. So "How to get the most out of your Netflix subscription" articles once pointed you to third-party websites, until Netflix killed off that option too.

(Well, not nobody. A common complaint about Barnes & Noble is that for any relatively obscure title, you're better off searching on Amazon even you plan to buy it at B&N.)

As Alex Hern points out, "The paradox of Netflix's transformation from a DVD rental company to a streaming video firm is that as its star has risen, the selection has got worse." Don't look behind the curtain: there's a lot less there there.

Netflix clearly wants to be HBO much more than it wants to be super-Hulu. HBO will give you a programming schedule a month at a time, but won't tell you what's in its backlist. Because that's the way television broadcasters work.

The broadcaster broadcasts and the audience consumes what's being broadcast. HBO subscribers overpay for a handful of original series, recent releases, and access to a backlist that's like randomly punching buttons on a Redbox machine.

Based on cash flow, it's working brilliantly for HBO. (Skinner observed among his lab rats that random rewards elicited the most vociferous responses. See also: slot machines.)

And it seems to be working for Netflix too. Justin Fox at Bloomberg confirms that "Today's Netflix has a lot more in common with existing TV channels, most obviously HBO . . . its success doesn't have much to do with the [back catalog]."

With true on-demand video, there isn't any "programming," because the "programming" is whatever the consumer says it is. That was the promise of streaming. But streaming isn't going to kill television programming, after all.

There's a lot of blather about "curation" in art these days, how much better off we'd be if people with better taste than you and me decided what's best. The "tidal wave of rubbish" being inflicted upon us by self-publishing, for example.

Granted, when bandwidth is finite, curation is called for, even necessary. A museum has only so much wall and floor space. A physical bookstore can stock only so many titles. A theater can book only so many productions in a given year.

Once upon a time, the Internet and the "long tail" were going to obviate that need. But apparently not right away. And not for all people and all markets. Sometimes people really just want to watch "whatever's on."

The reliance on trend-setters and taste-makers is summed up in the Japanese word (working its way into English vernacular) omakase ("I'll leave things up to you"). I admit it: I pay attention to starred items and good reviews too.

But for those of us with (once) fringe taste in (once) fringe media trends, leaving it all up to somebody else meant getting nothing we wanted. Manga and anime first flowed east across the Pacific thanks to IP pirates, not "curators."

Though back in the day, the IP pirates themselves were, by necessity, curators. You could pack only so many VHS tapes into your luggage.

For now, our entertainment options are in a tug-of-war between the a la carte world and the omakase world. Netflix started out as the former and ended up the latter. I suspect we're heading for a "curated a la carte" future.

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March 26, 2015

The culture of adoption

I previously noted Kiku Day's critique of Lost in Translation (2003), in which the "good Japan" is "Buddhist monks chanting, ancient temples and flower arrangement," while modern Japanese are depicted as "ridiculous people who have lost contact with their own culture."

In fact, Japanese are as nostalgic about the Edo period (1603-1868) as we are about the Wild West, on the one hand, and the Georgian period, on the other. As with cowboys and English aristocrats, popular depictions of the Edo period typically revolve around samurai (who were both law enforcers and aristocrats) and upper class merchants.

The peasants end up being pretty much part of the scenery. But during the Edo period, Japan minded its own business, fared reasonable well economically, and produced a quite literate and educated society. What's not to (selectively) like?

Women also fared well compared to their European counterparts. They weren't any more "liberated" and primogeniture still ruled. But a samurai's daughter would be the equal of the Bennet sisters in most respects (the cinematic heroines of Edo period dramas owe a lot to Elizabeth Bennet). In many ways, probate law was more flexible.

A Japanese Mr. Bennet wouldn't worry about the disposition of his estate. Of course, if one of his daughters had the opportunity to marry way up, he would encourage her. But then he would find another suitor who occupied a (slightly) lower social cast (but with money) and adopt his son-in-law-to-be into the family, making him a legal Bennet.

These mukoyoshi ("adult adoptions") were also a good way for a family with a lot of sons to keep them from fighting over the estate.

Paternal lines have been maintained this way for centuries. These days, though, the more pressing cause is a fertility rate of 1.4. Especially at family-owned businesses, mukoyoshi is not only a socially acceptable way to keep the family name alive and well, but to select an heir perhaps more suited to the job than what nature supplied.

Which means that, sometimes, the child can indeed choose his parents. And the parents can do genetic engineering in reverse (using a professional matchmaking service, though it's always better to "promote" from within the company).

Related posts

The downside of adult adoption
The three families

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March 23, 2015


I have no interest in the whole zombie thing. Not in Night of the Living Dead or the numerous copycats. Not in The Walking Dead. Zero. (Well, I did like the Mythbusters "Zombie" episode.) In any event, I mostly eschew the horror genre except where there's a strong eschatological element.

So I wasn't planning on watching iZombie, the latest paranormal police procedural from The CW. But it happened to be on and I happened to have nothing else to do. Zero expectations.

And you know what? It's really good! I mean, hands down, the best new series of the year. (I wanted to like Backstrom, but the pilot was so clumsily executed that I haven't gone back for another look. Maybe it's gotten better.)

Rose McIver (previously Tinker Bell, of all characters) is an ER doctor infected with a "zombie" drug (conspiracies are at play, but we've wisely been told nothing about them so far). She transfers to the morgue, where she can blend in better with the non-living dead and eat the occasional brains.

The thing is, this brain-eating (don't worry, it's too comically aware of its inherent goofiness to be gross), occasionally gives her flashes of the victim's last memories, and sometimes temporarily imbues her with their personalities too.

Down in the morgue, Rahul Kohli plays her intrigued colleague (he keeps his London accent while McIver sheds her Auckland roots), who covers for her "eccentricities" while searching for a cure. That he would do this out of sheer scientific curiosity is totally believable.

Malcolm Goodwin takes up the Agent Booth role, utilizing her insights to catch the perpetrators. Her excuse is that she's a psychic; he doesn't care as long as they solve cases.

Rounding out the cast, her family and ex-fiance fret about her constantly, staging the occasional "intervention": they think she's going through a "goth" stage because of lingering PTSD from her traumatic exposure to the "drug" (explained in the media as a bad batch of recreational drugs).

Like I said, I smell an X-Files style conspiracy in the works, but as long as they keep the stories episodic and the conspiracies in the background, I'll go along for the ride.

The series originated as a comic book series and uses comic panels effectively at the start of each segment.

The pilot episode gets the mood just right: dark, to be sure, but never somber; silly when it's supposed to be without getting stupid; and it even works in some upbeat character development without turning saccharine. A bit of Quincy, a bit of Bones, a bit of Angel (including a Spike look-alike).

In my book, that's the right recipe to make a show worth watching. (You can see the first episode here.)

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March 19, 2015

Patema Inverted

The "concept as plot" approach to storytelling works well enough if the story being told is kept short and simple. Because a concept, no matter how complex and compelling, isn't a plot.

Yet some ideas are so neat that you can fool an audience into treating them as if they were.

To a point. As Abraham Lincoln famously said, "You cannot fool all the people all the time."

That pretty much describes the arc of M. Night Shyamalan's career. He made getting fooled a heap of good spooky fun The Sixth Sense. But it went to his head and his movies got increasingly repetitive and self-important. Then the feeling was, "Fool me twice, shame on me."

The Matrix elevated "high-concept" to a half-billion dollar franchise by letting the audience in on the secret at the start. We do love a shared secret. But after dipping into the same conceptual well three times in a row, the water started to taste brackish.

Patema Inverted sets forth with one neat idea, and it's good for a hundred minutes of screen time (and not much more). There are enough loose ends at the end to justify a sequel, but a sequel would demand an actual plot. A concept is a told joke. We got it already.

Patema is the heroine, and the "inverted" (sakasama) means exactly that. In this quasi-dystopian future, there is an "above ground" tribe and a "below ground" tribe. Gravity works the opposite for each tribe.

The story about how this happened is covered in the first thirty seconds and then forgotten (until the end), which is a smart way to do it. When you're building on "concept" alone, don't belabor it. The more people think about it, the more holes they'll find.

There are enough holes in Patema Inverted to make a sieve (to start with, how the economy actually works), but out of sight, out of mind.

Otherwise, the one (annoying) flaw in the movie is that the "above ground" world is one of those by-the-numbers Orwellian societies ruled by one of those by-the-numbers cartoon villains, spouting off in religious terms without a religious context anywhere in sight.

(Shutting down inquiry by declaring curiosity a sin works in Scrapped Princess because it's couched in the framework of a powerful and pervasive medieval religious organization. There's none of that here.)

As a general rule, if you have to toss a dramatic foil into the mix in order to create actual conflict, there isn't any actual conflict. But if you do, make sure it's Hugo Weaving.

The backstory, brief as it is, suggests a better approach. The "dictator" should have been the last descendant of the scientists who caused the problem in the first place, desperate to hide the enormity of their error. Yes, scientists make mistakes and they have egos too.

Thus his interest in Patema's tribe: still trying to figure out what went wrong without revealing to anybody what they did wrong.

That aside, Patema Inverted is a fast-paced, fairly family-friendly (though not for acrophobes) exploration of a surprisingly deep philosophical idea. Director and writer Yasuhiro Yoshiura's clever use of perspective literally asks: "Which way is really up?"

In this case, as in so many, the answer all depends on where you happen to be standing.

A big shout-out to GKids, the U.S. distributor, which now also manages Studio Ghibli's back catalog. That includes the young-adult melodramas Ocean Waves and Only Yesterday, never before released in the U.S. (But still no date on the DVDs or streaming.)

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March 16, 2015

Walk on water

When I was growing up, the space race competed with underwater sea adventures for gorgeous photo spreads in National Geographic (which nobody read for the articles). Jacques Cousteau was as big a star as the astronauts and took prettier pictures.

As with Stanley Kubrick's space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey, everybody knew that we were going to be living in cities at the bottom of the ocean any day now (because, you know, population).

As useless as the ISS (and more dangerous) but at least cheaper.

Alas, by the time we made it to the Moon, real space exploration had grown ho-hum (sans white-knuckle disasters like Apollo 13). Living in space turns out to be pretty inconvenient. And mostly good for making cool YouTube videos.

The same goes for living under water. Somewhere along the evolutionary path, we homo sapiens got rid of gills, and good riddance.

But as it turns out, millions of people are living at the bottom of the ocean. The trick, you see, is first to raise the bottom of the ocean to sea level. That makes it a lot easier.

Over the past century, almost one hundred square miles of Tokyo Bay have been "reclaimed." I lived for a year in a housing project on reclaimed land in Osaka Bay, also home to Kansai International Airport, built entirely on a man-made island.

In Japan, it's actually more economically, politically, and environmentally efficient to carve up a mountain and dump it into the ocean than to move in the opposite direction, or push all urban development everywhere down to the water's edge.

The Tohoku earthquake has taken land reclamation in a whole new level. It's been four years since. The rubble has been removed, leaving behind empty fields and vacant lots where towns once stood. The question is how to prevent the "next time."

On 11 March 2011, 250 miles of coastline shifted up to eight feet eastward and dropped over two feet. Most harbor seawalls failed. Entire fishing villages were washed away. Fukushima Daiichi was swamped, its backup generators destroyed.

It soon became obvious that building sea walls able to defend against any possible tsunami was a fool's errand. And if built, the high walls would turn the place into a prison (which remains a problem even with the sea walls that are being built).

As a result, two basic approaches are being taken: 1) relocating retail and residential communities further inland; 2) a combination of sea walls and raising the ground level (click to enlarge).

Moving inland and higher up (courtesy Japan Guide).

Following the earthquake, parts of many coastal towns ended up underwater at high tide (and people complain about their mortgages being "underwater"). A good part of what was Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, will rise forty feet.

Another way to stand on higher ground (courtesy Japan Guide).

This once quaint fishing village now looks like a science fiction movie set: a forest of massive conveyor belts moving 20,000 cubic meters of soil a day. If you're looking for "shovel-ready projects," the shovels don't get any bigger than this.

Elaine Kurtenbach describes the government-industry complex that has been churning along now for half a century:

Pouring concrete for public works is a staple strategy for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its backers in big business and construction, and local officials tend to go along with such plans.

Rikuzentakata won't be going to the mountain; the mountain is coming to Rikuzentakata. Literally.

Making the mountains low (courtesy Japan Guide).

The Book of Isaiah sums up the process very well:

Every valley shall be raised up,
     every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
     the rugged places a plain.

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March 12, 2015

Now, Our Two Paths

Asahi Productions (Studio Shiroishi in Miyagi) has released an anime short about the rebuilding efforts in Miyagi Prefecture, hard-hit by the 11 March 2011 Tohoku earthquake. It's in Japanese but otherwise easy enough to understand.

(View the larger screen version here.)

Ima, Futari no Michi ("Now, Our Two Paths") begins a decade or so ago with Jun and Kunpei discussing their futures (Jun becoming a doctor, Kunpei a fisherman), and then gives us snapshots of their lives over the four year since March 2011.

The dates at the bottom right are the year (Heisei notation) followed by the numerical month or season (winter: 冬 spring: 春 summer: 夏 fall: 秋 New Year's: 元旦). Heisei 23 is 2011 (subtract 12 to get the Gregorian year).

The spring of 2011 finds Jun back in Miyagi, completing her residency at a clinic near her home town. Kunpei is a farmer. The buildings at the 2:20 mark are prefabricated housing units, still home to 77,000 (out of 230,000 total displaced persons).

A more in-depth description here. From a critical perspective, I'm impressed at how much story can be condensed into five minutes (it is very much a story of moments).

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March 09, 2015

The price of harmony

My sister Kate recently mentioned some reading she'd been doing for a course in interpersonal communications she's teaching. This particular text [The Culture Map by Erin Meyer] roughly separates corporate cultures into the categories of "low" and "high" context.

The U.S. has a "low context" culture. Contemporary American culture has been distilled over the centuries from a varied immigrant population that do not share a common background, so things have to be spelled out. The fewer assumptions made the better.

Japan has a "high context" culture. They've shared the same operating manual for the past two millennia. If you don't share it, then you're expected to pretend until you do. But rather than "high" and "low," let's call it "go along to get along" versus "I'm from Missouri."

The value of "go along to get along" is that since cooperation is presumed, people do their best to cooperate. Nobody makes waves. Making waves just proves you weren't getting along and you're not a team player. (It probably also means you can't read minds.)

That attitude can leave you stuck when the boss assumes X has been communicated and you have no idea what X is. And his boss may simply be trying to communicate what his boss assumes he understood and is kicking the can down the hierarchical road.

According to novelist Kaoru Takamura (she began her career at a foreign trading company):

In an organization where the authority-responsibility structure is unclear, employees are unable to make their own decisions and must constantly refer to their superiors. But because these superiors are also unclear about their own authority, they can't make responsible decisions. Problems just get shuffled around and everyone ends up working longer hours.

It comes down to the ratio of actual work to CYA. The consensus-seeking, conflict-avoiding style of Japanese business easily becomes a way of avoiding blame. If you've got to cover your superior's ass, you're going to make sure your own ass is covered too.

So where the brash American might shrug and wing it, the cautious Japanese is going to hunker down and play it safe.

The hallowed business practices of ringi (the bottom-up circulation of new proposals) and nemawashi (the politicking that accompanies it) do produce a sense of collective responsibility and wa (harmony).

But they also obviate personal responsibility (the buck stops nowhere) and chew up tons of time and energy. Noah Smith states it bluntly: as a result, white-collar productivity in Japan is horrendous.

Employees sit idly in front of their computers waiting for the boss to leave so they can go home, or make busy-work for themselves, copying electronic records onto paper (yes, this is real!). Unproductive workers are kept on the payrolls because of lifetime employment, with high salaries guaranteed by the system of seniority pay. To this, add endless meetings, each of which must be exhaustively prepared for in advance. Layer upon layer of bureaucracy with poorly defined accountability.

There is a price for everything, and the one for "going along to get along" can be steep. However we love to decry the "adversarial system" in law, politics and commerce, as Churchill said of democracy, it's the worse system we've got . . . except for all the rest.

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March 05, 2015

Pop culture Catholicism

Continuing from my previous post on the subject, a closer look at Catholicism in Japan's popular culture. Only one percent of Japanese consider themselves Christian, less than half that Catholic, making the influence of Catholic culture wildly disproportionate to its demographic presence.

Shusaku Endo (1923-1996) wrote about Catholicism in the context of Japanese history. His definitive novel, Silence, details the persecution of the church in the early 17th century. A movie directed by Masahiro Shinoda was released in 1971. An adaptation by Martin Scorsese starring Liam Neeson is scheduled for 2016.

Forced deep underground during the Edo period (1603-1868), a dedicated few courageously kept the faith alive for 250 years in the face of fierce persecution. Those days are all bygones. Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso is Catholic. "Christian"-style weddings are a popular (and less expensive) alternative to the Shinto rite.

That includes "Christian" weddings officiated by foreign "priests." Because any gaijin who can dress up and play the part will do. A marriage license is an official document issued by the state; what goes on in the church is legally irrelevant.

So setting serious things aside, let's glance briefly at the lighter side of pop Catholic references. I say "briefly" because I can only mention a few of the dozens of titles that qualify.

As I mentioned previously, the Inquisitorial arm of the Catholic church in Hellsing and Witch Hunter Robin (among many) functions as a conspiratorial manipulator of events on the world stage, like The Smoking Man from The X-Files or the NSA/CIA in Enemy of the State (and a zillion other Hollywood flicks).

For history buffs, there's Maria the Virgin Witch. It takes place during the Hundred Years' War. When she keeps interfering in human events as an avowed pacifist, Maria gets at cross-purposes with the Archangel Michael. (The series crazily ricochets between high-brow historical fantasy and very low-brow burlesque.)

Chrono Crusade features the "Order of Saint Magdalene" as a ghost-hunting organization. The vampire hunters in Trinity Blood work for a post-apocalyptic Vatican. The heroine in Saint Tail is a Robin Hood type whose base of operation is a Catholic church.

Haibane Renmei is perhaps the most accessible exploration of Catholic purgatory (or the Mormon "probationary state") in religious literature.

Though supernatural genres predominate, there are a few real life titles, such as Rumiko Takahashi's One-Pound Gospel, about a boxer kept on the straight and narrow by a Catholic nun.

More than theology, which few Japanese (and few Americans) could explain, Catholicism is best known as a setting, namely the Catholic girls school. Based on popular entertainment, you'd conclude that every other private school in Japan is a Catholic girls school. A recent example is Maria Watches Over Us.

The live action comedy Gomen ne Seishun! ("Saving My Stupid Youth") has a Catholic girls school with slumping enrollment merging with a Buddhist boys school in similar straits. School uniforms matter a lot in Japan, and Gomen ne Seishun! ridiculously dresses the girls up in what look like training habits.

It's not available in the U.S. (though Maria Watches Over Us is). Maybe someday it'll show up on Hulu or Crunchyroll? Really, you'd have to have a heart of stone to get offended at something this silly. A world beset by religious strife calls for even greater faith in the more jocular angels of our nature.

Related posts

Christianity is cool
Pop culture Buddhism
Pop culture Shinto
Anime genre horror

Hellsing (Fun)
Madoka Magica (CR)
Scrapped Princess (Fun)

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March 02, 2015

"Star Trek" on the lecture circuit

I'm old enough to have seen an original Star Trek episode (not a rerun!). It was during a sleep-over at a friend's house, way back in 1969.

The episode was "That Which Survives." It made quite an impression on my young mind, especially the way Losira (Lee Meriwether; Catwoman on Batman) escaped by shrinking herself into a horizontal line and vanishing into a dot. Televisions once did that when you turned them off.

The neatest, scariest, coolest thing ever.

I'd have to wait for the series to end up in syndication to see the rest. These were the wilderness years for the fans, before Star Trek became a phenomenon. Except for the short-lived animated series (1973), the first movie wouldn't come out until 1979. Next Generation debuted in 1987.

Until then, I made do with David Gerrold's I-was-there memoirs (The Trouble With Tribbles and The World of Star Trek) and all of the Star Trek novelizations by James Blish.

But there was an upside. As the fan base grew, the stars of the show began touring, and even made it to upstate New York. Thanks to my mom, I got to see Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner in person. Their presentations amusingly mirrored their characters and personalities.

Leonard Nimoy spoke at Union College, lecturing on the convergence of science and science fiction. The Space Shuttle Enterprise (so named because of Star Trek) had just completed its maiden test flights (click to enlarge). His was very much the demeanor of a visiting professor.

The cast at the roll-out of the real Enterprise (Wikipedia Commons).

The same demeanor he'd adopt for the In Search of series. Notes Eric Raymond, "He made braininess sexy." Incidentally, Nimoy spoke in the same hall (the memorial chapel) where I attended a talk by Isaac Asimov.

Nimoy brought along a copy of "Amok Time" to watch after the lecture. A reel of 16mm film. That's how television series were syndicated back then. Commercial breaks were flagged by sixty seconds of plain black-on-white text that simply said, "Place commercials here."

Which, of course, everybody started reading out loud in unison.

William Shatner appeared in a larger venue (the auditorium at Siena College, I believe). His performance was mostly a scripted one-man show. It featured soliloquies and spoken narratives with the general theme of space and astronomy in theater throughout the ages.

Both Shatner and Nimoy concluded with Q&A sessions. Off-script, Shatner transformed into a young Bob Hope, laid-back and relaxed, bantering with the audience members. Towards the end, he started pretend-pleading with anybody ducking out early to beat the traffic.

Nimoy, again, was cool, cerebral, and to-the-point. Suffering foolish questions gladly, but not without a touch of good-humored exasperation at the sillier inquiries. Yes, as he stated in his first autobiography, he wasn't Spock. But as he conceded in his second, he always will be.

This later joint appearance gives us Shatner and Nimoy together in their natural element. And although they played antagonists in a 1964 episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., one can grasp glimmers of their future characters.

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