November 30, 2017


In Japan, not even the manufacturer of precision hand tools can resist the allure of a cute mascot. The hand tool in question should be apparent from the shape of Nipako's hair and ribbons (click the image below to enlarge).

If not, let's look more closely at the etymology of her name. In Japanese, the suffix ko (子) functions somewhat similarly to the /y/ in names like "Debby" and "Betty." But the first two syllables in her name are written in katakana, meaning it has a foreign derivation.

One that's more British than American. Still guessing? See below the fold.

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November 26, 2017

Weather Vane (3)

The depiction of "normal" life in the midst of total war is one of the more interesting aspects of Asadora dramas like Carnation, Toto Nee-chan, Massan, and Ume-chan Sensei. The first episode of Ume-chan Sensei begins with a ordinary scene of the family eating breakfast. And then Umeko runs outside—into an utterly wrecked and charred landscape.

And yet life went on.

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November 23, 2017

The quintessence of the role

English is a Germanic language, but thanks to the Romans, the Vulgate, the Normans, and Latin being the lingua franca of academic scholarship well into the 17th century, Latin left its indelible mark on the language.

One of those truly cool marks is the word quintessential.

It derives from quīnta essentia, meaning the "fifth element" or essence of the heavenly bodies (believed to be "ether"). The other four elements are air, fire, earth, and water. (And now you also know where the title of The Fifth Element came from.)

For the past five centuries or so, quintessential (adj.) and quintessence (n.) have referred to the pure essence of a substance or the perfect embodiment of a thing.

I think it should refer to a school of acting.

The thought occurred after catching several episodes of Kojak (1973–1978) on Cozi TV (also available from Netflix). A recurring theme in Blue Bloods is how bad the "good old days" were. Crime statistics from the past quarter century prove it. Or you can watch Kojak.

Inspired by gritty crime dramas like The French Connection (1971) and Serpico (1973), the grime and nihilism is lightened by Telly Savalas's witty, wry, better-honest-than-nice Lieutenant Theo Kojak. Savalas was doing the cop version of Hugh Laurie's Dr. House thirty years before House.

In the role, Savalas captures the quintessence of the hard-nosed Brooklyn detective. His performance reminds me of Luca Zingaretti's in Inspector Montalbano (not just because they're both bald). Both play to type, a Greek-American and a Sicilian, and play that type over the top.

Zingaretti plainly states that his Montalbano is an exaggeration, a "commedia dell'arte," which is a

theatrical form characterized by improvised dialogue and a cast of colorful stock characters that emerged in northern Italy in the fifteenth century and rapidly gained popularity throughout Europe.

It is exactly this embrace of the inner stock character that allows an actor to "transform and enlarge" the part, that allows the essence of the person represented by the character to shine through. Such a performance creates an emotional rapport with both the cast and the audience.

This is what makes Savalas's and Zingaretti's characters so memorable. They key in on our familiarity with the type (which all fictional characters must be to some extent) and use that familiarity to pull us deeper into the substance of the person they are playing and the story he is telling.

I call this "acting to the quintessence." It deliberately skirts the Stanislavskian approach because theater isn't real life and actors aren't the real people they are portraying. The most "realistic" portrayal on screen is ultimately a made-up story told against an artificial backdrop.

Even a rigorously objective documentary is a shadow on Plato's wall. Once a camera starts rolling, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."

Embracing the type while transcending it is no simple task. Cast as Japanese, Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's delivers a cringe-worthy stereotype, while Marlon Brando in Teahouse of the August Moon convincingly depicts a person utterly unlike himself.

Brando was famously a method actor, except that all the "method" in the world wasn't going to turn him into a Japanese living in post-WWII Okinawa. What he could do was focus on those demonstrable aspects of the character that communicated the essence of his part in the story.

In other words, Brando acted like he was that person, and being a good actor, those actions resonated with the audience.

The job of narrative fiction, regardless of the medium, is not to recreate the real world. It is to draw in rough sketches with a specific and artificial focus, giving our own creative instincts enough material and latitude to fill in the rest. Our minds are the only virtual reality machines that matter.

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November 19, 2017

Weather Vane (2)

In traditional Chinese culture, qi (ki in Japanese) is characterized as a vital "life force" that permeates every living thing.

On page 305, Suiga refers to Kakei using the second person pronoun anta, a familiar form of anata. Neither is appropriate when addressing a social superior (even today). I discuss the subject at length here.

An intercalary month is a leap month inserted into a calendar year to make the calendar follow the seasons or moon phases. The Buddhist calendar adds both an intercalary day and month on a regular cycle.

The traditional East Asian lunisolar calendar is divided into 24 "solar terms."

At the end of this chapter, in his example about the rice harvest, Choukou is referring to the 13th solar term (立秋), which begins around August 7 and ends around August 23, and the 14th solar term (処暑), which begins around August 23 and ends around September 7.

Making things more confusing, the eighth month in the Gregorian calendar is the seventh month in the lunisolar calendar. This is why the O-bon festival is held in July or August, depending on whether the region follows the lunisolar or the Gregorian calendar.

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November 16, 2017

The "normal" superhero

Having complained about the eye-rolling superness of too many (if not most) comic book superheroes, I should point out that the protagonists in action-oriented series, from James Bond to John McClane to Indiana Jones to Himura Kenshin, are superheroes in everything but name, only more "normal."

Not to mention police procedurals that are really excuses for action series, like Hawaii Five 0 and NCIS: Los Angeles, or that contain a supernatural element, like Lucifer and iZombie and Supernatural.

Jim Caviezel as John Reese in Person of Interest is a true superhero, especially when paired up with Michael Emerson and his "Machine." This is essentially the premise of Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex, though Ghost takes place in a world where everybody has a "Machine."

Unfortunately, as much as I enjoyed John Nolan as Mr. Greer, in the Decima Technologies arc that dominated the last third of the series, "Samaritan" was little more than yet another comic book supervillain that rehashed all the old Big Bad Mainframe cliches.

By contrast, Enrico Colantoni as Carl Elias is a billion times more interesting. A vulnerable bad guy who can do the right thing is hard to beat.

The best episodes of Person of Interest had them tackling problems that prove more complicated than they first appeared (true of good police procedurals in general), but more complicated because of human complications, not superhuman ones.

I'd love to see a franchise like Spider-Man eschew the supervillains and the city-wrecking apocalyptic plots. Okay, the good guys can do a little pounding, but that still won't solve the problem, not if the goal is a conviction that'll stand up in court.

Actually, Wonder Woman largely did just that, which is what so elevated it above the competition. Okay, Wonder Woman cheats by using World War I as the setting, but at least Diana isn't the one wrecking the cities (aside from the odd belfry).

Alas, based on the previews, Diana will henceforth no longer be an independent woman (with a couple of human sidekicks), but will be chaperoned by a bunch of superguys and frustrated by a bevy of silly supervillains. As if the success of the first movie was a fluke.

Related posts

The Big Bad
Person of Interest
Too super for their own good
Reframing the mainframe plot

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November 12, 2017

Weather Vane (1)

The cry of the semi (蝉) or cicada is a quintessential part of summers in Japan. Here is a sampling.

The political and geographical divisions of the Twelve Kingdoms.

国  Kingdom
州  Province
郡  District (comprised of 50,000 households or 4 prefectures)
郷  Prefecture (comprised of 5 counties)
県  County
党  Township
族  Town
里  Hamlet (comprised of 25 households)

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November 09, 2017

Too super for their own good

The big problem with Hollywood comic book superheroes is they're too dang super. All that superness requires that the supervillains to be too dang super too. The combination of the two quickly descends into abject silliness (in terms of the motivations) and massive vandalism (in terms of the consequences).

At least when Godzilla wrecks Tokyo (which he does as less a "villain" than a force of nature, like a typhoon or earthquake), he has to work at it. And you can't help but appreciate all those scale models being crushed underfoot. Somebody actually made them! With glue and paint and balsa wood! Amazing!

Though Godzilla wears out his welcome pretty fast too.

Otherwise, inflicting billions of dollars of CGI property damage on a major metropolitan area simply isn't entertaining. I mean, it really isn't. It's depressing when it isn't dull. The inputs—the millions of dollars and zillions of credits scrolling by at the end of the film—don't come close to equaling the outputs.

In my bubblegum entertainment classroom, getting a passable grade in science fiction and fantasy means the screenwriter has to at least respect the laws of thermodynamics. Okay, he doesn't have to be totally constrained by them. But putting limits on how big, how fast, and how strong forces writers to get creative.

The latest Wonder Woman gets the balance pretty much right, as focused human effort can force her into a literal crouch. I've gained a new appreciation for the old Bill Bixby Hulk series. Even pumped up and painted green, Lou Ferrigno is a real person constrained on screen by 1970s television technology.

Batman and Ironman (supposedly) only rely on technology, but technologies that too often violate the basic laws of motion too. Same problem with giant robots.

Ironman still contributes to large scale urban renewal projects (though mostly because of the people he hangs out with). And Batman still ends up facing off against vaudevillian bad guys with motivations borrowed from the goofier side of the Bond spectrum, except that Christopher Nolan expects us to take them seriously.

Sorry. Can't. No matter how much he underexposes the film (and Nolan actually shoots on film).

Patlabor gets it right too. I usually avoid the mecha genre because of the basic science issues. Patlabor succeeds because 1) it takes a big team to keep one "labor" operational; 2) the batteries run down pretty quickly; 3) they go to great lengths to limit collateral damage; 4) they don't take themselves too seriously.

In other words, Patlabor demonstrates a healthy respect for the laws of thermodynamics. And common sense.

Hey, we're fighting crime with giant robots! How whacked out is that?

One nice point of the original Star Trek was the constant search for "dilithium." The series since have posited that the magical "antimatter" fuel is "free." Which is boring. A big reason for the opening of Japan in 1854 was the need for refueling stations. Lots of dramatic possibilities in that simple requirement.

Despite the scientific silliness, at least Tony Stark works hard on the hardware and isn't stone-faced about everything, which makes him enjoyable to hang with for a couple of hours. The same can't be said for whoever's been cast to play Batman since Adam West retired from the role.

The repartee between Chris Pine's Steve Trevor and Gal Gadot's Diana in Wonder Woman is reminiscent of classic 1930's screwball comedies. Setting the story within a known historical context and populating that world with one superhero also contributed to making it the best in the genre.

On that score, Deadpool cranked the sarcasm and fourth-wall-breaking knobs up to eleven. I'm not sure it's sustainable but Deadpool also demonstrates how "small" budgets make for better movies ("small" being bigger than any other movie studio on the planet). A smart script gets way better mileage than more CGI.

One of the running jokes in Deadpool is that they couldn't afford any of the big superheroes, so all they get is a couple of sidekicks. Ryan Reynolds, who stars and produces, reportedly insisted on keeping things (relatively) small. Here's to hoping he can keep the superness of the sequel similarly in check.

Related posts

Lois & Clark
The Big Bad
Reframing the mainframe plot

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November 05, 2017

Fuushin ("Weather Vane")

"Fuushin" takes us back to the same time frame as "Hisho's Birds." During the short and destructive dynasty immediately preceding Youko's, Empress Yo attempted to banish all women from the kingdom. Some of the reasons are laid out in chapter 59 of Shadow of the Moon.

The word fuushin (風信) can refer to 1) information about the wind, such as that obtained from a weather vane (風信器). As in English, it can also figuratively mean to 2) "catch wind of something," gossip and rumors (風のたより). I'll use the first to refer symbolically to the second.

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November 02, 2017

The need for speed

Having a living fossil on hand—a twelve-year-old IBM Thinkpad T42—prompted me to do a little benchmarking to see how far the technology has come.

The Intel 8088 in the original IBM PC (1981) clocked in at .33 MIPS (millions of instructions per second). Compare that to the Thinkpad's Pentium M Centrino processor at 7,400 MIPS. A little division reveals that the now old and creaky Pentium M is 25,000 times more powerful than the lowly 8088.

MIPS is a less useful yardstick these days, so I'll use Passmark's CPUMark score. The CPUMark for the Pentium M is 414.

Lets compare apples mostly to apples and stick with a mid-range "economy" laptop configuration: an Intel Core i5-7200U paired with the HD Graphics 620 chipset. A Dell laptop configured with 8 GB RAM and a 1 TB hard drive goes for a third the price of the Thinkpad.

The CPUMark for the Core i5-7200U is 4689, making it ten times more powerful than the Pentium M. But raw CPU benchmarks are not the best way to measure the power of the whole package.

Consider the graphics processing unit (GPU).

The original IBM PC supported 80-column monochrome displays and CGA graphics (320×200 pixels in 4 colors). The Thinkpad T42 has XGA graphics (1024x768 pixels in 16,777,216 colors). These days, pretty much any GPU can drive any resolution. What matters is how fast data can be written to the screen.

The G3D benchmark for the Thinkpad's ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 is 4. Four. Hence the issues playing HD video. The G3D benchmark for the integrated Intel HD Graphics 620 is 945, over 200 times faster. A cheap add-on desktop GPU like the Radeon RX 550 has a G3D benchmark of 3654.

Even Intel's low-end integrated GPUs can output 4K video. The challenge of writing pixels to the screen in True Color and HD has long been addressed. Modern GPUs are powerful computers within the computer designed to decode HD video streams and render 3D computer graphics.

Big performance gains have turned up elsewhere on the motherboard as well.

The PCI Express bus runs twenty times faster than the old PCI/IDE bus. DDR4 SDRAM runs at least ten times faster than DDR1. In a few more years, the SSD should completely replace the slowest component in a PC, the hard drive. That will boost data transfer speeds another order of magnitude.

There is still room to grow on the CPU/GPU front. The high-end Intel Core i9 and AMD Ryzen Threadripper CPUs deliver CPUMarks north of 23,000. Ditto the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080 Ti, with a G3D benchmark of 13,300.

And both currently cost more than the rest of the computer.

Based Moore's Law to date, those prices should decline sharply in the coming years. So as 14 nanometer manufacturing becomes more affordable, we can expect to gain another couple orders of magnitude in raw performance at the consumer level.

At some point, though, quantum and thermodynamic realities will curtail Moore's Law.

Quantum tunneling kicks in with a vengeance below 7 nanometers. Instead of building smaller, the current solution is to "stack" silicon wafers on top of each other, like a high-rise. But the necessity of dissipating heat imposes limitations of its own, which is how we began this discussion.

Microsoft in particular is battling a more pressing technological, or rather, marketing limit. Windows 7, released in 2009, still dominates all other desktop operating systems by a huge margin, with almost half of total market share.

Intel's Core i5 and i7 CPUs have been on the market as long as Windows 7. Unless you're a gamer or power user, there's been no compelling reason to upgrade since. The next PC I buy could be the last PC I will ever need. What will Microsoft and Intel have to sell me in another dozen years?

Related posts

Cool it
MS-DOS at 30
Antique repair
The accidental standard
Back to the digital future

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