December 28, 2017

Taking time for granted

In "Weather Vane," the orphaned Renka is taken in by the "Keeper of the Calendar," which prompts this amusing passage that remains relevant in our world as well:

To be in the presence of a real person who made calendars and almanacs was to Renka a revelation. She could easily imagine such things being printed. But the creation of the calendars was well beyond her grasp. It had never occurred to her that somebody actually made them every year.

Frankly, it's still a mystery where time comes from, though we have learned how to measure it with great accuracy.

The creation of accurate calendars was key to the scientific revolution. Commissioned to create a better calendar, Copernicus ended up rejecting the Ptolemaic model of the solar system in favor of the heliocentric, which Galileo then confirmed with his observations of Jupiter and its moons.

Galileo also created the first pendulum clock. The invention of precision chronometers is documented in Longitude, Dava Sobel's fascinating biography of the 18th century clockmaker John Harrison.

If I want to know the time, I glance at the bottom right of my screen. If I want to know when Daylight Saving Time kicks in, I google it. It's all thanks to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the keeper of the atomic clock. Yes, somebody is in charge of time. Good thing, too.

Though I wish the people in charge of time would get rid of Daylight Saving Time. Alas, that'd take an act of Congress.

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December 21, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

In the process of ostensibly saving the world, the contemporary superhero leaves so much wreckage in his wake that the world would have been better off if he never showed up. What makes Wonder Woman such an outstanding superhero movie is that Diana does hardly any wrecking at all.

And what wrecking she does turns out not to be the solution to the problem.

Call it the fiduciary responsibility of the superhero. The infrastructure balance sheets can't keep running into the red. To be sure, the Marvel franchise has turned the whole thing into a running joke. Except there's nothing funny about the damage all this wanton destruction would inflict upon society.

This realization inevitably reduces the bubblegum in bubblegum entertainment to a sour gob of tar.

Stalin famously said (he wasn't the first) that "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." Perhaps the more appropriate version of the quote is attributed to the 18th century scholar Beilby Porteus, who wrote that "One Murder made a Villain, Millions a Hero." Or a comic book supervillain.

But as Dirty Harry would say, a supervillain has got to know his limits. This business in science fiction blockbusters of blowing up planets has worn quite thin (besides being totally impossible according to even the most fanciful laws of fantasy physics).

Every action film confronts this dilemma: how many innocent bystanders the bad guys can kill to prove how deserving they are of being killed. Unlike the first and later installments, Die Hard 2 illustrated the limits by killing a plane full of bystanders to make a dramatic point. That killed the entertainment value for me.

Spider-Man: Homecoming seems to have digested this lesson, and mostly follows the George of the Jungle rule: "In this film nobody dies, but they will get big boo-boos."

Well, one henchman gets zapped with a ray gun and a few others are going to end up with some serious medical bills. Still, it was a nice change compared to a movie like Logan, where it'd be easier to count who doesn't end up dead.

Unfortunately, Spider-Man still wrecks a whole lot of property, including a national landmark. Okay, maybe he didn't do it on purpose, but his actions certainly led directly to it. Here's a lesson for all you kids: Don't carry glowing alien technology around in your backpack.

One ironic problem with super-realistic CGI is that, on a human level (as opposed to blowing up Death Stars), it becomes increasingly difficult to pretend that a ferry splitting (realistically) in two or a C-17 sized transport plane disintegrating (realistically) over New York City would not have deadly consequences.

A problem anime largely overcomes by sticking to abstract versions of reality. And Godzilla largely overcomes by being silly make-believe.

In this respect, Tom Holland plays the teenage Peter Parker perhaps a bit too well. A typical teenager, he doesn't understand the repercussions of what he does on the spur of the moment, even after Tony Stark dresses him down (literally) and tells him he's causing more problems than he's solving.

Of course, Spider-Man sort of saves the day in the end (the world wasn't at any risk). But he never actually pays for anything. I don't mean with money (Tony Stark can cover that). I mean with some moral acknowledgement of personal responsibility that goes beyond getting either dopey or mopey.

This is what annoys me about "family-friendly" movies like Brave. Merida "bravely" confronts problems she caused in the first place. The same applies to Frozen, though I'm more forgiving in the latter case because Elsa is a deeply flawed character whom Anna (the real hero) has to save from herself.

The problem is, Elsa becomes not-a-basketcase far too easily. At the end, she's wrecked her kingdom and (nearly) killed her sister too. Spending even a minute or two more at the big climax getting a grip would have helped enormously with my empathy for her travails.

Strangely enough, as Adrian Toomes (the "Vulture"), the finely-cast Michael Keaton comes across as the most empathetic character in the movie. He has no actual superpowers. He does have an understandable beef with the government, which explains his turn to the black market arms trade.

Spider-Man: Homecoming would have done better channeling his desire for revenge in a righteous direction, uncovering government secrets far darker than his arms peddling. The Department of Damage Control sure seems like a seedy outfit, and maybe they're running their own con right under Tony Stark's nose.

That'd present Peter Parker with a morally complex problem that would require him to make morally complex choices that couldn't be solved (as Wonder Woman discovered) by bashing stuff.

Or at the very least, Toomes could have been fashioned into a second father figure for Peter Parker (contrasted to Tony Stark), without revealing his criminal activities to Spider-Man. That would have made the moment when they both realize they know the secret identity of the other so much more dramatic.

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December 20, 2017

Hisho's Birds

December 19, 2017

Hisho's Birds (notes)

December 17, 2017

Weather Vane (6)

The occasionally hot "cold war" between Baku Province and the Imperial Government, documented in A Thousand Leagues of Wind, began when Koukan, the province lord of Baku, rejected the claims of the pretender.

Youko allied herself with his men to overthrow the corrupt governor of Wa Province. She later appointed Koukan as Chousai of the Imperial Court.

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December 14, 2017

The strong and the soft of arcs

When it comes to narrative arcs in television dramas, the strong arc requires a soft arc but not necessarily visa-versa.

Most anime series have fairly strong arc storylines. A typical cour runs 13 or so 30-minute episodes, so can be digested in a couple of binge-viewing sessions. Beyond the Boundary ran 11 episodes, at least two episodes too few. Eureka 7 ran a strong arc through 50 episodes, twice as many as needed.

Narrative disasters occur when a dramatic arc expected to last a season or two proves more popular than its creators expected. They then drag out the premise the series began with. The result is that nothing gets resolved and all kinds of nonsensical reasons have to be concocted to keep them from getting resolved.

(On the other hand, Detective Conan has run so long I wonder if anybody remembers the weird premise it began with or expects it to ever get resolved.)

Eventually, the writers run out of things to write about and fall back on melodrama. That's when I stop watching. Nothing is more frustrating than a enjoyable genre series that runs out of material and resorts to characters screwing up their lives with angsty self-involvement and rank stupidity.

I might have watched more than ten cumulative minutes of Friends if Ross and Rachel got hit by an asteroid at the end of the first season so we could focus on Monica and Chandler, whose relationship actually matures. The relationship between Niles and Daphne progressed on Frasier, though took too long getting there.

Big Bang Theory is not only funnier but more entertaining when the characters grow and develop in positive ways, not slip and fall on the same banana peel week after week.

I suspect that soft arcs often harden because the writers worry about running out of story material. Afraid of repeating themselves, they resort to what Kate calls the compulsion to "CHANGE, SHOCK, DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT!" But the result isn't "something different." It's endless reruns of Groundhog Day.

Sure, Groundhog Day is amusing for two hours. Year after interminable year, it would define an inner circle of hell. But as Groundhog Day points out, breaking free of this perdition doesn't involve dramatic gestures so much as it requires steady personal growth, mostly ordinary characters improving on being ordinary.

Working with the full knowledge that there is nothing new under the sun is much more liberating. As Kate points out, Agatha Christie built a successful career out of being obvious and doing the "same old thing" over and again.

What makes Christie so great is the simplicity of her story ideas. Story often comes down to one idea. The telling may be elaborate (red herrings plus more red herrings plus more red herrings), but the ultimate denouement is not complicated at all.

Overextended strong arcs are bad enough. When the Decima Technologies arc derailed the premise of Person of Interest, it mutated from a series into an updated version of the Saturday morning serial. Individual episodes simply served to chop an increasingly implausible plot into digestible pieces.

That's unfortunately what also happened with the Ori arc on Stargate.

Watching the first season of 24 cured me of the desire to watch any of the sequels. At this point, we're in telenovela territory. Most live-action Japanese dramas are compact versions of the telenovela, with a single cour lasting around 10 episodes. Except for the Asadora, I usually give them a pass too.

Ten hours of conflict and angst is bad enough. When it's the exact same conflict and angst (and no resolution) week after week (until the last episode), it's unbearable. (Though a series like I'm Mita, Your Housekeeper can win me over with unique characters, episodic plotting, and a touch of magical realism.)

Or the exact same crime, as in police procedurals that take a single mystery and stretch it out over a dozen hours. No, I am not going to wait that long to find out whodunit, not when Columbo can figure the whole thing out in ninety minutes.

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December 10, 2017

Weather Vane (5)

I translate dango (団子) as "donut holes." Dango are dumplings made from rice flower. They are typically roasted over hot coals and served on skewers.

Here is a bumblebee in action.

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December 07, 2017

To be continued . . .

Rewatching the early seasons of The X-Files, I'm impressed how effective it is when doing one-off mysteries. Granted, the big conspiracy stuff is fun because it has that classic noir look (with great supporting actors). But think about it for five seconds and it's awfully silly and ages awfully fast, very much a product of the times.

Stargate has the same issue with the Goa'uld and the Replicators, and I got too bored with the Ori to keep watching. The Stargate producers purposely set up each arc with a Big Bad at the center of the ongoing drama. It's a reliable formula, but one that eventually poisons its own well.

Still, the standalone episodes of Stargate are often flat-out fantastic.

This is a persistent problem with "strong arc" storylines, wherein the setup and resolution of each episode depends on the preceding episode and dictates the substance of the one that follows. I think removing the need to maintain the episodic continuity of the arc can free writers to wax more creative.

The original Star Trek holds up well because there pretty much is no arc, making it easy to ignore the mediocre shows and feast on the great ones. I recent saw "Arena" again, and despite the Gorn captain looking like he'd just strolled off the set of a Godzilla movie, boy, does it make for a great short story.

Same with "A Taste of Armageddon" and "Errand of Mercy" and "City on the Edge of Forever." Knowing nothing about the Star Trek universe would not diminish the viewer's ability to grasp the entire point of these stories.

But especially in longer series with relatively stable casts, expectations of some sort of plausible continuity and evolution in the "soft arc" must be met (unless, like The Simpsons, the expectation is established early on that the show will reset after each episode).

Star Trek didn't run long enough to worry about the Starfleet org chart. But Star Trek: TNG took too long to explain what Riker's problem was. As a military history like The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, King makes clear, no serious military man turns down a promotion (he maneuvers for the one he wants).

Giving Riker a sketchy past from the start would have created a more interesting dynamic between him and Picard (I blame Roddenberry's obsession with utopianism).

I agree with Kate that Bones gets it mostly right. Castle wades too far into soap opera territory for my tastes, but then rescues itself by poking fun at its own outrageousness, like having Castle travel to an alternate universe to solve a crime and deal with his personal issues.

Blue Bloods does a good job of changing things as naturally as the screenwriters can manage, which in the early seasons mostly had Danny and Jamie getting new partners and Frank dealing with a new mayor. Amy Carlson left before the start of this season. But each season arc rarely overwhelms the individual episodes.

Jack O'Neill and Samantha Carter get promoted on Stargate and, true to their characters, end up together with a minimum of histrionics. General Hammond retires. Even Michael Shanks leaving the show for a season appears mostly seamless in retrospect. Equipment evolves, weapons evolve, including how Teal'c outfits himself.

Done right, the "small stuff"—big emphasis on "small"—of natural character development can strengthen episodic dramas. Done wrong, it results in eye-rolling soap operas.

Speaking of Michael Shanks, Saving Hope gets it mostly wrong. I like the medical dramas and the supernatural stories that feature Shanks. But the season-long arcs are soapy to the the point of becoming unwatchable. This is even true of House in the later seasons, and it remains one of the best television dramas ever.

Cable series seem to be all about the strong arc, one of many reasons why I don't watch cable television dramas. But anime is all about the strong arc too. More about that next week.

To be continued . . .

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December 03, 2017

Weather Vane (4)

After mulling it over for a while, I decided to translate "Fuushin" as "Weather Vane." See my explanation here.

Unlike their cousins the honeybees, the rest of the bumblebee hive does not overwinter with the queen. With no need to stockpile honey, they are not useful as honey producers. However, they are bred for use in agriculture as pollinators.

Although female bumblebees can sting repeatedly, ignore them and they will ignore you.

Of course, bumblebees in our world don't need a yaboku tree to reproduce. As far as that goes, while new plant species come from yaboku trees (as documented in "Blue Orchid"), pollination is a component of sexual reproduction.

This suggests that the flora of the Twelve Kingdoms at least partially follows the biological rules of to our world.

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