Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Micro Reviews: Final Fantasy XV, Justice League the New Frontier, Black Mirror, Suicide Squad

This is an exercise in concision. I am going to sum up my views on four works of art across four different mediums. I grant myself only one (long) paragraph for each.

Final Fantasy XV


A memorable if flawed entry in the illustrious Final Fantasy franchise. Though occasionally wonky and buggy, the game plays great, and is an enjoyable open world adventure with combat that grows on you. The story feels like something that was rewritten several times over 10 years, roughly this game's development time. There is this strong sense that everything could have been better executed had the game not undergone so much reworking. The story's pacing is awful, and it is rather bleak in its later acts. Still, the ending stays with you. It is an uncompromising story with a very human center thanks to its four protagonists. A solid soundtrack and great graphics add to the experience. Overall, not the series' best entry, but still a fun and memorable experience. 

Justice League: The New Frontier


This is almost a must-own for DC fans. The art alone is worth the price. The gorgeous, classic imagery transports you to middle 20th century America. In particular I loved the costumes - The Flash's red pajamas, the black 'S' for Superman, and Wonder Woman's romantic design. The story is grand and fun, though it falls short in some of its ambitions. Darwyn Cooke's story is clearly meant to transcend contemporary politics and encourage us to come together as Americans. Unfortunately he cannot help but be unnecessarily partisan in some moments. I think it is reductive to paint the 1960's as an era of enlightenment triumphing over all the evil racism / sexism / whateverism of prior eras. I also wish the story had focused on different characters at different moments, though that may just be fanboyism speaking. Ultimately it is a cool story with great art. Very much worth getting if you are a JL fan.

Black Mirror


Written by the always fun Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror is an engrossing examination of technology and its social implications. Each show presents a different vision of the future usually from the perspective of a single character and their daily struggles. As you would expect from this formula it is an uneven show but never boring. As a software engineer naturally there are some episodes I found more interesting / realistic than others. All are worthwhile, but my top three are 'The Entire History of You', ' 'White Christmas', and 'San Junipero'. The first of these three is great because of its plausibility and the details of the technology itself, especially the UI. The second features the delightful John Hamm. Always a treat. The third is easily the best episode of the series. Nothing more need be said about it.

Suicide Squad


I saw this in theaters and immediately forgot about it. It had so few redeeming qualities that I figured it was best to put it out of my mind. Then I was dragged into seeing the extended cut a few days ago, and I remembered just how insufferable this film is. The story is beyond ridiculous. It doesn't even try to get you to suspend disbelief. The script is a disjointed mess of ad hoc plot hooks stitched together with an omnipresent 'am I cool yet?' soundtrack and crappy action scenes. None of the characters are done well, though Will Smith and Margot Robbie at least get enough screen time to have some good moments. Worst of all: It's not even funny. Formulaic MCU movies at least get that right most of the time. It is frustrating because this could have been great. A more down to Earth plot, better character development, and snappier dialogue could have made this DC's answer to Guardians of the Galaxy. Instead we have the third dead on arrival DC universe movie. If Justice League and Wonder Woman can't turn things around next year, they need to scrap this whole experiment. It is getting embarrassing.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

A Difference in Values

There has been a lot of talk about how 'divided' America is as evidenced by the election. Many in the media have tried to take the high road by reaching across that divide and advising those disappointed with the election outcome to do some reflection. They suggest more engagement with the other side.

I think this is sound advice, but there is a more basic principle I think people should consider.

Thomas Sowell I believe was the one who wrote that, often intense political debates really just come down to two people having different preferences. People argue until they are blue in the face offering facts, rebuttals, references, all with the tacit assumption that their point of view is the 'right' one. Progressives say that their world view is informed by 'facts', therefore it is ok for the media to be biased and write off Trump voters as misinformed. Many Trump supporters feel the same about liberals. They see progressives as ignorant.

But in reality the divide may not so much be about 'facts' but rather moral principles. Progressives and conservatives are two groups of people who simply prefer different things. It is not a difference in understanding, but a difference in values.

In any discussion it is important to determine what sort of disagreement you are encountering. Differences in understanding can be worked out through dialogue, research, and compromise. Differences in values are often irreconcilable.

I'll use an example from the tech world.

A coworker and I may have different opinions about how to set up a Cassandra database cluster. He might think we should use a very large number of servers and I might think we should use fewer. This is not a difference in values but rather a difference in understanding. His understanding of Cassandra is that it is best to use lots of cheap small nodes. My understanding is that, while you can get some performance gain from using lots of nodes, there are diminishing returns at a certain point, and the overhead of managing lots of servers is not worth it.

There are two important things about this sort of debate. 1. Neither of us is really emotionally invested in it. Our sense of identity is not embedded in how many Cassandra nodes we launch. 2. There is something close to an objective right answer. Depending on our use-case and data size, there are objectively better Cassandra architectures. Because of this, if we are both rational, we can argue, test, and eventually reach a resolution. This is how differences in understanding should generally end.

But what if we have a difference in values? Lets stay with a simple tech example: I prefer to use Vim, my coworker swears by Emacs. Is one editor objectively better than the other? Well, not really, no, though they have different features that might be better for certain things. What's more, both of us may have some emotional investment in our opinion. I have been a Vim guy for many years and find it hard to seriously consider other editors. My coworker feels the same about Emacs.

So I don't bother trying to convert him. I am about as interested in getting him to use Vim as I am in arguing with people who think Empire Strikes Back is better than A New Hope, or people who think Pepsi tastes better than Coke. Sure I might argue about such things for fun but ultimately I see no point in trying to change people's subjective opinions. Whatever triggers a dopamine hit in your brain chemistry is your business.

And so we come back to the problem of politics. The divide between liberals / conservatives / nationalists / libertarians / etc – ultimately it is often a difference in values. Progressives prefer to live in a more secular society that celebrates diversity, gender equality, alternative sexualities, and encourages the government to manage more of the economy. Conservatives prefer to live in more traditional societies that support gender norms, a homogeneous culture, nationalism, and a more capitalist economy.

Neither viewpoint is objectively better than the other. We could try to scientifically argue that one vision leads to a better economy. We could try to argue that one vision is more socially 'fair', though even that would be steeped in specific values. We could try to make a factual case for one vision over the other, but in the end, some people might just prefer the other one anyway.

So where does that leave us? In a society of 300 million there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Neither side can easily change the values of the members of the other side. People's values evolve gradually through technological change, emerging consensus, and often in response to national crises. In the mean time, as I said in my previous post, I think Americans need to work toward rebuilding a shared culture.

Personally I think the founders of America had the right idea with the tenth amendment. In a nation as big as America, federalism is the only practical answer for keeping people of different belief systems happy. Let the progressives be progressive, and let the conservatives be conservative. In fact that's something all Americans could get behind.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Why They Lost

I didn't support Trump or Hillary Clinton. Were it up to me we would have had Rand Paul vs. Bernie Sanders. Yet now that Trump has won, I can't help but be amused by all of the shocked democrats that thought he would be crushed in a landslide. I too thought Trump would lose, but I never wrote him off. As I said in my previous post, I figured he had a chance if Hillary's turnout was weak and the polls were inaccurate. Both turned out to be true.

Progressive and moderate Hillary supporters need to do some soul-searching. The usual advice given to the defeated party by the victorious one tends to be self-serving; they'll suggest democrats need to moderate their positions, compromise more, yield to republican preferences, etc.

There may be some temporary political benefit in that, but it is not the key advice I would give. To the frustrated leftist out there wondering why Trump won, I would NOT advise them to change their views on gay rights, racial injustice, feminism, Obamacare, immigration, multiculturalism, the welfare state, etc. Fight for what you believe is right. No need to change your values unless something convinces you to do so.

Instead I would just advise progressives to think about their tone.

I'll give an example of what I mean.

Throughout Trump's campaign I heard it mentioned several times that he was receiving high levels of support from poor, uneducated whites. Progressives should have responded to this by saying, "Ok, how can we reach these people. Why are they not buying what we are selling?" Instead, whenever this fact was brought up, it was always said with a kind of snarl. The attitude was, "Hah! see! only uneducated and poor people vote for Trump. Smart, rich people know to support Hillary." There was no attempt made to conceal the contempt for these people. This is why Hillary's "deplorables," comment was so powerful. It was a shockingly honest moment for her.

Progressives used to care first and foremost about the downtrodden. They were the champions of the poor. They were the advocates of the less-educated. Thanks to identity politics they have lost sight of this. They saw that a lot (though not all) of these Trump supporters were white and immediately branded them as bigots. This allowed them to immediately dismiss any and all of their concerns. They closed their ears and their minds.

Once the progressives wrote off Trump's supporters, Trump's supporters wrote off them. They too stopped listening and didn't care about Trump's many flaws or the reasonable arguments for supporting Hillary. It became a numbers game. From there the media did much to help Trump by overplaying their hand. They made Trump into an underdog by endlessly demonizing him. To be fair Trump set himself up on more than a few occasions with some of his rhetoric. But it became obvious to the voters early on that Hillary Clinton was essentially being coronated.

I think this sense of entitlement rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. That all the media, academia, and Hollywood had aligned against Trump only served to create the impression that Hillary was the candidate of the elite and Trump the candidate of the little guy. The #NeverTrump wing of the republican party added to that feeling. You had video games parodying Trump. Celebrities attacking Trump and urging people to vote Hillary on Youtube. Speaking of Youtube, I was watching Epic Rap Battles of History the other day, and I saw that they even made their latest episode into a pro-Hillary rant. I think this all had the opposite effect as these sorts of efforts only end up preaching to the choir. But the creators don't realize this. They don't realize how much they are in their own bubble.

A recent Onion article describes it well:

http://www.theonion.com/article/area-liberal-no-longer-recognizes-fanciful-wildly--54670

The problem is not just that progressives are out of touch. The problem is that rhetoric on both sides has gotten so toxic. The problem is also the notion of "sides." This election has shown that the traditional left / right divide is breaking down. Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin all going for Trump is a sign of this.

We need to get out of this factionalized paradigm and start trying to build a shared culture again. Modern society with its internet communities and smartphones, has made it easy for us to wall ourselves off into echo chambers. This is more of a problem for progressives because conservatives have a harder time avoiding progressive viewpoints. Every time they open a newspaper, go to a college class, have an HR meeting at work, watch a movie, play a video game, or just try to watch a Youtube video about rapping historical figures, they end up hearing progressive ideology. What's more there is a perpetually outraged mob of internet warriors ready to attack people's families, employers, and livelihoods if a conservative happens to say something that triggers a progressive.

Again, I'm not saying progressives need to change any of their views. I just think they need to think about how to actually win hearts and minds. Deep down I sense that a lot of progressives don't want to try to persuade the other side. I have heard a lot of people react to the election loss by saying things like "I'm just done trying to reason with these people! They're just racist, sexist, homophobic idiots!" Many progressives I think hope that persuading the other side ultimately won't even be necessary. The Young Turks mentioned this during the election coverage. The demographic trends of the United States favor the democratic party in a number of ways.

The hope seems to be that, given enough time, conservative white voters can be made irrelevant by importing enough foreigners and having minorities outbreed them. This is a dangerous Machiavellian game to play that is guaranteed to invite backlash (see yesterday's election results for evidence). Writing off a massive political constituency that you disagree with is bad strategy. Hoping to gradually disenfranchise them is no better.

Progressives need to look in the mirror and consider their approach if they want to come back strong in 2018 and 2020. I am sure Trump will give them plenty of ammo. Yet none of it will matter if all of their arguments fall on deaf ears.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Eve of the Election

The U.S. election is coming up in a few days.

I want to not care about it. Unfortunately I sort of have to pay attention. What happens in America has a big impact on Japan. Furthermore I still feel some emotional attachment to America.

What's funny is that I know that if I were still living in New York I would not even bother voting. Both candidates are so awful that I think the only way I could bring myself to pick one of them would be a 'lesser of two evils' argument, and that would only really influence me if I lived in a swing state.

But since I do not live in the United States any longer I don't think it really is my place to vote. I don't intend to live there again. It seems unseemly for me to exert political influence on a society in which I no longer intend to participate.

Though I must admit, if Trump wins, I will be curious to see how it turns out.

I don't think he will. The demographics are strongly against him. That the media has been strongly biased against him has been a significant handicap. It also didn't help that he was a pretty terrible candidate to begin with.

The only way I see him winning is if somehow the polls completely missed a large portion of his support. It is possible that Hillary's base turnout will not be as strong as the new voters Trump pulls in with his populist views. Still, if I were a betting man, I'd say Hillary has this locked up.

Hillary Clinton is the establishment candidate. It is strangely fitting. The 2008 and 2016 elections will define the millenial generation in the United States. In 2008 they were inspired by an “outsider” promising hope and change. In 2016 they will shun the outsider and choose the status quo. When they do, I know that I can comfortably wash my hands of America, and get about the business of becoming a full member of my new homeland. America will become whatever it will become. With Hillary at the helm, I can say with confidence that I won't want to be a part of it. With Trump, well...it could at least be entertaining.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

On Assimilation


“When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

I am an immigrant in Japan. For this reason, I study and speak Japanese language every day. I follow the news and keep up with local current events. I wear a suit when I work in a Japanese office. I bow in social situations that require it. I take off my shoes at the entrance of people's homes. I am careful about what subjects I choose when making small talk. I follow Japanese etiquette when eating, or socializing, or riding a subway. In short – I do everything in my power to assimilate.

No one forces me to do this. I simply do it because I do not believe immigrants have the right to expect accommodation for the norms of their homeland. I deliberately use the term 'homeland' here because I think it is analogous to being a guest in someone's house. As I wrote in my article 'Standing,' a house guest does not have the right to demand that his host bend to his every preference and whim. Immigrants are, at least at first, similar to guests I believe.

But how far does this really go? What exactly does a nation have the right to demand from its immigrants? The more militant proponents of multiculturalism would probably answer, ‘nothing.’ Nations should be honored that immigrants want to move there, and foreigners should be encouraged to maintain their unique identities, they might argue. I do not agree with this. I believe good fences make good neighbors. I think if we value diversity, we have to value borders – the right of people to form their own exclusive communities. No one could maintain the unique customs of their own home if anyone could walk in the front door at any time and demand all the house rules be changed.

So what can a country require of its immigrants? There is a line I think. There is the public and the private. I think the private is that which no one can really regulate. Our own thoughts, our own beliefs, and broadly speaking, what goes on in our own homes. Immigrants have every right to maintain their religious traditions, diets, and other behaviors within their own minds and within their own homes. In my own case no matter how long I live in Japan, I know that a little bit of New York will always be within me. Growing up in New York obviously had a big impact on my personality. That attitude will never fully die and that's fine with me; It has made me who I am and I like myself.

But out in the world – out in public, no one person 'owns' that society. It is collectively owned. We are bound by a social fabric that requires mutual compromise and trust. To create that trust we create rituals and conventions that are unique to each culture. This is why I think out in public it is important for immigrants to show solidarity with their new country of residence. Dressing, speaking, and generally acting as other citizens do is a show of good will – a sign that the immigrant seeks to be an equal member of society.

I have no illusions that I will ever be seen as “fully Japanese.” Even if I could make myself look Japanese it wouldn't change the fact that I didn't grow up here. The culture just isn't in my bones the way it is for natives. Nevertheless, I still make the effort to fit in as best I can. I think all nations, rich or poor, have the right to ask that much of would-be immigrants.

I believe nations have this right because a 'nation' is simply a collection of people – a large tribe if you will. Those people have come together and built a society. In the course of building that society they settled on a few standards – language, dress, religion, manners, etc. Those standards and traditions, arbitrary as they may be, become a culture and that culture has its own value. The people that created it have a right to preserve it. They may wish to preserve it because, and here’s the controversial bit, they may believe their culture is better than others.

Can one culture be simply better than another? People certainly seem to believe so. Millions of people every year vote with their feet by emigrating from one culture to another. I certainly did when I left the United States and moved permanently to Japan. While these preferences may be subjective, they are no less valid. I and a hundred thousand other gaijin come to Japan every year because it is Japanese, and we want it to stay that way just as the natives do. Assimilation is the small price I pay to help preserve the society that attracted me in the first place.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Just Checking In

Been a busy couple of months.

I was back in the states for a while. Two months. Good to remember why I left. Got to see some family too, which was great. The distance is still the hardest thing about leaving.

Work has been really busy this month. I foresee something of a pivot in my future. I love what I am doing, however I don't think I am meant to do it forever. I have been studying a lot of math and machine learning material recently. Thinking of going in that direction. May even go back to school if the opportunity is right.

I'm taking a break on writing. Need to focus on studying Japanese and my health for the next stretch. Need to take some time off from the internet and do some meditating. Got a lot to process these days.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

トランプと日本

English Version: Why Trump Could be Good for Japan

トランプが日本に好都合であり得る理由

東京ーーーヒラリー・クリントンのカリフォルニアでのバーニー・サンダースに対する決定的な勝利に伴い、11月の大統領選における戦いはほぼ明白になった。党大会二者の土壇場での狂乱がないとするなら、トランプ対クリントンと見られる。1年前には殆ど誰もこの組み合わせを想像もしなかったのに、この有様だ。おそらくはオーランドのナイト・クラブでの銃撃に際するトランプの無神経な反応のせいで、最新の世論調査はクリントンの圧倒的なリードを明らかにしている。しかしながら、昨年の状況が我々に何かを教えているとすれば、それは”トランプを早々と見限るのは誤り”ということだ。

はっきりさせておくが、私はトランプ・サポーターではない。この論説のポイントは、トランプの勝利がアメリカに好都合たり得る、と主張することではなく、むしろそれにより日本にとって好ましい幾つかの副作用が見込めるということだ。クリントンへの投票は、様々な意味で、現状維持への投票だ。もしあなたがバラク・オバマ下での諸々の成り行きを好み、同様の状態をを更にと望むのであれば、彼女はあなたの候補者だ。このような投票は、疑いなく論議を招くところであろう。

対照的に、トランプは基本的に(どのカードにも代用できる)ワイルド・カードだ。ひとたび官庁に入った彼が何をするかについては実のところ誰も考えを持っておらず、多分トランプ自身でさえもそうだろう。彼の当選は、二大政党にその独自性の再評価を課するだろう。彼の支援者のうち多くの割合が、ただ単にワシントン権力体制に飽き飽きしているから、それと現状の政治をぶち壊したいからという理由で彼に勝ってほしいと望む。

そしてここに日本にとっての好機がある。トランプは本質的に日米関係のリセット・ボタンである。クリントンは日本についての新たな考えや懸念を持っていそうもない。トランプはしかしながら、貿易や外交政策についての方針をコメントし、明らかに全てを交渉可能と見る。日本とアメリカの関係がこのまま続く限り、検討の余地のないことは何一つない。

経済におけるトランプの大衆主義を一考してみてほしい。もしも彼がTPPに立ち向かい、貿易条件の再交渉に努めれば、それは日本に保護貿易主義的政策のうち幾つかの再考を強いるかもしれない。それは日本の消費者にとって恩恵につながることが考えられる。今年、シャープが台湾企業ホンハイに買収され、日本のエレクトロニクス会社として海外からの記念すべき初獲得を喫したことを思い出してほしい。

トランプの奮闘が日本産業により多くの保護貿易あるいは自由貿易のどちらをもたらすにせよ、いずれかの進路が多数の企業にわたってその法人収益と雇用を揺さぶるであろう。ディール・メーカー(交渉役)総理大臣安倍晋三の首尾いかんにより、新たな協定が慢性的な日本の経済停滞から抜け出す助けになるかもしれない。

しかしトランプの経済観は、日本変革へと続く可能性を秘めた一番の道ではない。トランプは公然と日米安全保障条約を批判する。彼は日本が核兵器を持つべきとすら提案した。トランプの「アメリカ第一」ビジョンは、日本はもっと独力でやるべきとの信念をはっきり示している。彼は日本を、アメリカの善意を利用している裕福な国と見なす。ビジネスマンとして、アメリカから幾らかの 重りを取り除いてそれを日本に戻すようなより良い契約の再交渉を望んでいる。

このことは、政治の大規模な変化へと日本を導くかもしれない。アメリカ大統領が「より自立した日本」を強硬に求める続ける最初の機会となるだろう。それは安倍と彼の政党が日本の軍事統治権を再制定する憲法改正にあたって、その牽引力を得るために必要とするほんのひと押しであるかもしれない。それはまた、安倍の対抗勢力を勇気づけ、結果的に憲法温存に力添えして終わる強力な反感をもたらすかもしれない。

言い換えると、日本は(釣りをするか餌を断つか、)去就をはっきりせねばならないようだ。アメリカが日本の保護者となるようトランプに刃向かうか、自己依存の意識を目指して共に進むか。それは戦わすに値する議論ーー低い投票率を一貫して続ける有権者たちを活気づける議論かもしれない。とりわけ若者が政治的プロセスから切り離された社会においては、このような議論は人々の関心を喚起する助けとなるだろう。

日本文化は均質的に見えるようでいて、多くの政治的社会的問題には真の区分がある。日本を再び軍国主義にするのを何をおいても食い止めたいと願う戦争反対の対立グループあり。西洋文化のアイディアーー労働者保護、男女機会均等、同性婚、人種多様性等々をもっと取り入れたいと願うグローバリストや進歩派あり。そして反対側には国粋主義者や保守派あり。後者は「日本を日本のままにしておきたい」と欲して文化を保存し、一方前者は日本が世界のステージでより大きな役割を要求するために軍事勢力を再建すべきだと信じる。最後に、どこか真ん中あたりにはすべての穏健派、無所属派、そして自由至上主義者タイプあり。彼らはあらゆる個別の問題について、広範な見解を表明する。

日本の未来がどの政治的党派にも属さないにもかかわらず、トランプ大統領(職)が着手するであろう文化的大改革はそのパワー・バランスを組み直すかもしれない。このような変革には多くの不確定性があり、日本の現状は世界中の多くの国に比べればかなり卓越している。私は「現状のままで余計なことをしないクリントン大統領(職)のほうが、きっといい選択との意見に敬意を払う。しかしながら変化を望む人々にとって、トランプは日本を改めて卓越させる格好の一助となるのではないだろうか。

Monday, July 18, 2016

On Changing Character's Race and Gender



I saw a story today about how Iron Man is now being portrayed by a black female in the comics. This is part of a bigger trend by Marvel to try to increase representation of minorities in their stories by replacing popular existing characters. They have done this with a female version of Thor, a black version of Spiderman, a female Wolverine, and a black Captain America. There are likely others I am forgetting.

It isn't just Marvel or comics doing this either. On TV and in theaters we have seen recently a black version of Perry White, a black version of Jimmy Olsen, a black version of orphan Annie, and a female version of Doctor Watson, Sherlock Holmes' partner. Remember that this is not about actors portraying characters of a different race, such as Scarlett Johansson portraying Motoko from Ghost in the Shell. That's a different issue. This is about the character themselves being altered and made to be a different race or gender. In the case of Marvel comics, what they have been doing is replacing the white man behind the mask with existing or new minority characters. Not quite the same thing but the same basic purpose.

So how do I feel about this as a black man? In general I oppose it. I think making jarring demographic changes to characters can be interesting for Elseworld comics – thought exercises, side stories and the like. However for mainline runs or big budget movie adaptations, I think it is wrong for a number of reasons.

The first thing that bugs me about it is the blatant pandering. These companies switch the race of an already popular character and then pat themselves on the back for “uplifting” minorities and increasing their representation in media. Any minority with a brain ought to be annoyed at how condescending that is. This attitude from media companies, “See! Look! Look! He's BLACK now! She's a WOMAN now! See? Aren't we awesome???” In practice whenever the biggest and most surprising thing about someone is their race or gender, you are almost guaranteed to have a boring character. What's more, it doesn't even really achieve the stated goal of “increasing minority representation,” since everyone knows that they just temporarily replaced a well-known white character. It is equivalent to bringing in a few black substitute teachers at an all white high school and then acting like the school has meaningfully increased minority representation on its staff.

I dislike tokenism. I dislike the idea that a single black comic character can somehow be representative of all black people. It's insulting. Beyond the pandering is the fact that it is incredibly lazy. In the same way that Hollywood increasingly only churns out sequels, reboots, and adaptations, big comic book companies are loathe to launch new heroes. Instead, they just take someone already popular and switch up the demographic details. “Hey, everyone already loves Thor. Lets just do FEMALE Thor!” The implicit message is that women and minorities do not deserve their own heroes. Let them be content to just ride the coattails of a tried and true white male hero who has already paved the way for them. Why take risks on non-white and female characters when you don't have to?

It isn't just insulting to minorities though; it is also unfair to white people. How is it that people can complain about “white washing,” in Hollywood when the same thing is done to white characters again and again? How would we feel if Hollywood remade Blade with a white guy as the main character? Or how about we get Emily Stone to play Storm in the next X-Men movie? Or how about we have a man take over as the new lead of Tomb Raider? The fact is, all characters, white, black, male, female, or whatever, have a history that should be respected.

Greek mythology gave us great characters like Hercules and Zeus. It is unique to that culture and something Greeks can be proud of to this day. In the same way Sherlock Holmes is a uniquely British character. Kuro Hazama (Blackjack) is a uniquely Japanese character. All over the world, from South America, to Africa, to Europe, are civilizations with their own mythologies and literary traditions. Some have been passed down for centuries. When we change those histories – rewrite Annie as black or James Bond as a woman – we disrespect the heritage of that character as well as the culture that spawned it. Implicitly we understand this with non-white characters. No one would dare rewrite Zorro as a blonde German. But because of contemporary PC altruistic philosophy, we think it is virtuous to blot out characters of white or male or European ancestry.

How is it that the same people who whine about Justin Timberlake appropriating black culture by singing R&B, can be OK with explicit appropriation of white characters? The common argument as to why it is OK to replace white / male characters but not others centers on nebulous non-concepts like “historical injustice,” and a supposed lack of representation. But this does not bear much scrutiny. For one, no injustice is corrected by erasing white or male characters. All you do is create a new injustice. Secondly, this does nothing to help women and minorities thrive in creative fields with their own unique characters. 

Every time you you swap out a popular white character for a minority, you send the message that there is no need for or interest in minority characters that stand on their own. Instead, you teach minorities that their time is better served petitioning corporations to change white characters for them. This has the effect of tacitly affirming the opinion of racist whites who believe that not only are minority characters inferior, but that minorities are incapable of even attempting to compete with whites in creative fields. You are proving them right.

And here we come to my biggest reason for not liking these changes: It is divisive. It creates more hostility between minorities and whites than it cures. It perpetuates the dangerous zero-sum idea that the only way for minorities to gain is by tearing down whites. The minorities that buy into this take it as a victory every time an established white character is 'taken,' and made 'theirs.' Whites, rightly, see their own culture as being unfairly appropriated.

Minorities do not have to 'take' from whites in order to uplift themselves. Instead we need to work and build and create for ourselves in order to excel. We need to build our own stories, our own franchises, our own communities. We cannot blame racism for not doing this. Yes, racism exists, but it is not so powerful as to force us to beg, hat in hand, for noble tolerant white people to give us their sloppy seconds. Insisting that whites temporarily change the race / gender of their own popular characters to make us feel like we are equal creative participants in popular fiction is a degrading idea. It is a continuation of white man's burden. Instead of relying on the charity of whites, we need to show that original black characters can be successful on their own.

This is why characters like Black Panther and Lucius Fox are so important. Black Panther is an original African hero with his own unique background and concept. He's just as awesome as the Dark Knight with the right story. Lucius is an example of an original supporting minority character done right. Fox makes Batman more believable, is a brilliant engineer, shrewd businessman, and a key ally to the Wayne family. He also just happens to be black. No big deal. No need for a parade or a whole lot of self-congratulations on DC's part. Just a cool new character blazing his own trail in movies and comics. That is what women and minorities need. More Black Panthers and more Lucius Fox's.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

発言者としての地位



あなたの家に二人の来客が泊まっていると想像してみてほしい。ゲスト1は、あなたの家の上っ面のしつらえや様子にやたらと好感を示す。しかし翌日になるまでもなく、あれこれ文句を言いだす。彼はあなたが用意する食べ物や、家具の選択や家族の日課が気に入らない。彼はあなたの家のいくつかの習慣に欠点を見いだし、彼が育った家庭の習慣を取り入れるべきだと主張する。その一週間後、彼は何事もなかったかのように自分の家に帰っていく。ゲスト2は、あなたの家庭や家族をもろ手を挙げて敬愛する。あなたのライフスタイルを取り入れるために、自分の流儀を踏み外す。ふとした運命の導きで、彼はあなたとずっと住むことになる。彼はあなたの家庭にまつわる人々とうまくやっている。職業を持ち、経済的に貢献する。基本的に、彼は家族の一員だ。暫くしてから、彼はあなたの家庭内の事柄をどのように改善するかについて、提案を申し出るようになる。

日本の外国人(ガイジン)コミュニティーには、保守派と革新派、二つの陣営が存在する。前者は文
化を敬愛し、その保存を望む。後者は日本を何かにつけ進展遅れとみなし、より西洋化させる道を模索する。そこで私が見るに、どちらの陣営も国外居住者ではなく移民とならない限り、確固とした社会的発言権はない。国外居住者は、社会に没入しない。彼は数年を楽しみ、そして我が家へと帰る。移民は深々と関わる。彼は永住の心づもりである。カルチャーに馴染み、言語を学び、子供をそこで育て、キャリアを築き、税金を支払い、しばしば市民権や投票権を得る。彼は”自己資金投資の賭けをしている”と言えるだろう。このような理由から、生粋の市民は彼の見解に一目置き、国外居住者のことは概ね気にかけない。

これは国外居住者や一時ビジターにとって、フェアでないだろうか? もしもあなたがアメリカ人革新派であれば、中東や南アメリカの移民がアメリカにやってきて、声高にホモセクシャルの違法や宗教教育プログラムへの政府資金増額を訴えたら、どう感じるだろう? おそらくは、節度がないとわかるはずだ。「そんなに自国の文化が好きなら、さっさと国に帰ったら?」と考えるだろう。そこまでは思わないにしても、アメリカ世論がこんな侵入者をひたすら無視することを望むに違いない。

国外居住者には意見する権利がない、と口に出している人はいない。誰しも一度は来客になった経験がある。私にもフロリダの叔母のクレイジーなアパートでの一夜のあと、彼女のライフスタイルについて「目一杯」の意見があった。ただそのどれもが命に関わるものではなかったし、それゆえ自分の考えはしまっておいた。同様に、国外居住者は何を思ってもいいし、望む形で自分の見解を言葉にしてもいい。けれど、彼は土地の文化をそれほど知らないこともままあり、その視点は単に自国の文化に慣らされた好みの現れにすぎないので、人は彼を相手にせず、その存在を平気でスルーする。対照的に、移民は第二の故郷の文化を、必要上それなりにディープに掘り下げている。彼は故国からバケーションで訪れているのとは違う。新たな故国を築きつつあるのだ。その地により精力を注ぎ込み、周囲から影響を受けることもより多いので、彼の見解は一考する価値があるものになる。

日本の社会は、日本国民が日々生きて選択を重ねるとともに自然と進化していく。この国に意欲的に関わり、発言適格者としての地位を手に入れた外国人は、この進化を形作る立場を獲得する、と私は考える。革新派に対する私のアドバイスはこうだ。「もしもあなたに社会でのまっとうな発言権がないなら、人々に注意を払わせる資格を得たかのごとく振る舞うな。もしも確固とした発言権を持っているなら、『他の国はこうだから、日本もこうするべき!!』といった事実にのみこだわるのではなく、変わることで物事をいかに具体的に良くするかという方法論にフォーカスしろ。」保守派に対しては、こう言いたい。日本的だからという理由だけで、日本文化のいかなる局面をもやみくもに擁護するのはやめろ、と。日本を含め、すべての文化は進化し変容し、ときにそれはより良い方向へと向かう。どのバトルを戦うか、取捨選択せよ。保存するに値するもの・ことにフォーカスせよ。

Sunday, July 3, 2016

日本語で書きましょう!

Going to start putting Japanese language articles here. I have been working on translating some of my reviews and political writings. I am working with a few different translators and studying on my own as well.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Traction

I wrote a column for Japan Today.

It is about a recently passed hate speech law in Japan. You should read it. It is very clever.

I am also going to write for Metropolis. Going to pursue a few other publications as well.

It's all falling into place. Heh heh heh.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Standing


Standing

Imagine two houseguests who stay in your home. Guest 1 likes a lot of superficial things about your home. However within a day he starts complaining about many things. He doesn't like your food, your choice of furniture, your family's daily routines. He finds fault with several customs within your home and insists that you adopt customs he grew up with in his household. After a week, he returns back to his home anyway. Guest 2, absolutely adores your home and family. He goes out of his way to adapt to your lifestyle. A twist of fate causes him to end up living with you permanently. He gets along with people in your household. He works a job and contributes financially. He basically becomes part of the family. After a while, he begins to offer suggestions about how to improve things in your home.

Among the Gaijin community in Japan are two camps, conservatives and progressives. The former adore the culture and want to preserve it. The latter see Japan as backward in many ways, and seek to make Japan become more westernized. The thing is, neither of these camps have standing in my view, unless they become immigrants instead of expats. The expat is not deeply invested in the society. He has fun for a few years then goes home. The immigrant is deeply invested. He intends to live there permanently. He assimilates into the culture, learns the language, raises a family there, establishes a career, pays taxes, and often becomes a citizen and votes. You could say he has “skin in the game.” For that reason, native citizens care about his point of view and generally do not care about the expat.

Is this unfair to the expat or temporary visitor? If you were an American progressive, how would you feel about groups of Middle Eastern or South American migrants coming to the USA and loudly agitating for criminalization of homosexuality and more government funding for religious programs? Most likely you would find it unseemly. You might think, “Why don't they just go back to their own countries if they like their culture so much?” At the very least, you would likely hope that the American public will just ignore these interlopers.

No one is saying that the expat does not have a right to his opinion. We have all been houseguests at one point. After one night at my aunt's crazy apartment, I had A LOT of opinions about her lifestyle. However none of it was really life-threatening, so I kept my thoughts to myself. Similarly the expat can think whatever he wants and voice his views wherever he wishes. However people are more welcome to dismiss him, as he likely does not know very much about the native culture, and his views simply represent his own conditioned preference for the culture of his homeland. By contrast the immigrant has delved deep enough into the culture of his new home out of necessity. He is not on a vacation from his homeland; he is establishing a new one. Because he is more invested and likely better informed, his views are worth considering.

Japanese society will naturally evolve as Japanese citizens live their lives and make choices every day. I think that those foreigners that gain standing by committing to the country have a place in shaping that evolution. My advice to progressives is this: if you don't have standing, don't act entitled to have people care about your opinion. If you do have standing, focus your argument for change on how it will concretely improve things, not simply on the fact that “other countries do it, so Japan should too!!” To conservatives I would say do not blindly defend every aspect of Japanese culture simply because it is Japanese. All cultures evolve and change, including Japan's, sometimes for the better. Pick your battles. Focus on the things worth conserving.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Review: Ghost in the Shell Arise

Note: This review covers the entire anime series as well as the film.



Ghost in the Shell transcends.

It stands above the crowd of typical anime series because it is a genuinely original work of uncompromising cyberpunk. It offers a believable yet imaginative setting and a fantastic cast of characters. It gives us great action and a plethora of interesting sci-fi ideas. It leans on a few fun anime tropes without ever feeling cliché or too embedded in Japanese culture to translate. Simply put, Ghost in the Shell is an anime perfect storm. While they are not all equally good, every manga, film, and TV show is worth your time.

The same is true of the latest release, Ghost in the Shell: Arise. Arise was created by Production I.G., the same studio that gave us the fantastic Ghost in the Shell TV series Stand Alone Complex (SAC). Arise reboots the franchise by retelling the origin of Motoko and her Section 9 squad. It features new writers, directors, and a new voice cast, but for the most part keeps the designs of Motoko's squad mates the same. Motoko Kusanagi, the iconic hacker extraordinaire lead, is really the only character to get a complete makeover.

Her stoic personality remains mostly unchanged, but her origin and appearance are revamped. She no longer looks like an adult woman; her new design is more of what the Japanese might call “chibi,” or cutesy. Frankly she looks to me like a teenage boy thanks to her short hair, small stature, and masculine demeanor. Her back story is tweaked to help explain her talent as a hacker and cyborg soldier. We learn that Motoko is unusually skilled at controlling cyborg bodies because of her birth. Her cyberization began while she was still in the womb, and thus she has no memory of ever having a flesh and blood body.

The special snowflake birth back story combined with her childish look gives the Major a distinctly “magical girl” feel. This is a pervasive trope in Japanese fiction, and it can work well in some contexts. It just does not really suit a character like Kusanagi. She was never meant to be some mystical little fairy with a hidden ultimate power. Instead she was a world-weary pro with skills honed from experience. In Arise it is hard to understand why someone as young and small as she is so incredibly powerful. It never crosses into Mary Sue territory, thankfully. Kusanagi is not invincible in Arise; she makes mistakes, is more than once bested by adversaries, and generally only succeeds with the support of her team. But still, the look just seems incongruent with the world and the character, especially given the fact that she is the only major character with this childlike form.

So what is the point in making a great character like Kusanagi suddenly look like a kid? Kusanagi being a strong female character I think may have been part of the motivation. The contrast between Motoko's conspicuously feminine, slender frame, and the swift, violent actions she often carries out, has always been an interesting visual trope in GitS. By making Kusanagi even more small and frail – literally making her into a little girl – that contrast is even more emphasized. I don't see it as a worthwhile tradeoff, however. Just in terms of looks I find it less appealing and rather boring compared to previous incarnations.

The good news is that the Major's redesign is my only major (heh) criticism of the show. Everything else about it is excellent. Arise is similar to Stand Alone Complex in that it is very much a details show. It never shies away from complexity. The sparse humor, efficiently packaged technical explanations, the natural personality conflicts – all of it gives the show a real sense of life and rewards people for paying attention. I love the way the show always digs into inter-agency politics and questions of jurisdiction and procedure. It adds a level of believeability to the narrative without ever bogging things down.

I like how Motoko cares about the nature of her team. She does not want her squad to just be another police force, or military unit cleaning up political messes. She insists on an independent offensive unit that has full authority and funding to resolve threats no other agency is suited to handle. For this reason she and her squad mates bristle whenever they are asked to formally join the public security agency, liaison with other departments, or even serve under American CIA operatives in one instance. There is this meta theme about the importance of how governments solve problems and maintain security. Motoko has to balance her and her team's desire for autonomy against their need for government clearance, top of the line equipment, and expensive maintenance for their cyborg bodies.

On top of the richly layered narrative is an incredibly stylish show, more so than SAC at times. The animation is fantastic, particularly the dazzling action scenes. Every episode has at least one really solid, tense fight scene that harkens back to the great set pieces in the original film. While some of these callbacks feel a bit forced, they are at least well-executed. 'Visual feast' is an apt term to summarize the look of the show.

The stories are also all quite good and the longer runtime allows for meatier plots. The first episode gives us a solid introduction to Motoko with a tightly-paced whodunit murder mystery that makes us question the reliability of the protagonist's point of view. The second episode brings in the rest of Motoko's future section 9 squad mates, only the narrative takes a fun twist and sets them up as antagonists. You get lots of great action that avoids feeling like 'jobbing' – battles that diminish one character to boost another. Episode three brings in section 9's resident non-cyborg Togusa, whose no-nonsense detective work one-ups The Major in a story that displays her more vulnerable side. Episode 4, perhaps the most ambitious yet weakest entry, plays with the idea of false memories and identities as a super hacker triggers a mass shooting. Though the ending felt a bit random, the concepts it explores are interesting.

There is a fifth border that was divided into two shorter episodes called “Pyrophoric Cult.” It was released under the Alternative Architecture version of Arise as a prelude to the Arise film named Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie. Both the fifth border and the movie are excellent. The former has some of the coolest action scenes in the series, as we see the squad go after a man believed to be the elusive hacker Fire Starter. The movie serves as a perfect capstone to the series. In the same way that Solid State Society added depth to numerous characters with its winding narrative, Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie will make you see Motoko and several supporting characters in a new light. It is just as good a story as SSS only I did not find it as captivating thematically. SSS dealt with a very topical issue – the social consequences of the aging Japanese population. The New Movie juggled some interesting ideas too, though they were less relevant and not handled with the same nuance.

As good as it all is, nothing in Arise seems to justify a reboot. The plot arc of the four 'borders' essentially covers the birth of Motoko's team, and it is a solid narrative in its own right. The thing is, SAC had a good thing going, and you could have easily told the same good stories we get here in Arise in that world. Rebooting everything now only adds unnecessary complexity to an already fragmented canon. The fact that Arise is filled with homages to SAC and the original movie only emphasizes the sense that there really was no need to start over (they reference the manga's opening scene twice). What's more, the Major's redesign just does not work for me. It clashes with the world she inhabits and is aesthetically a downgrade for my tastes.

Once you get past these issues you are left with an engaging, meticulously crafted work of art. You get gorgeous animation, fantastic action scenes, a rich sci-fi universe, complex, multi-dimensional characters, classic noirish mystery, and a spectacular soundtrack to boot. While it is not exactly the direction I would have wanted the franchise to go, it is still a great addition to the series that stands on its own well for newer viewers and is an absolute must-see for fans.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Review: Wonder Woman Earth One



When a writer attempts to retell the origin story for household name characters like Wonder Woman, they have to start with a few difficult questions: Who is this character supposed to be? What are the fundamental qualities that define this character and make them endure? Zack Snyder got these questions wrong in two Superman movies, and all the marketing and special effects in the world could not save them from critical and audience backlash. Grant Morrison, a comic writer with a fairly good track record in this regard, absolutely nailed it with All Star Superman, a colorful and inventive take on the character that reminds us why Superman is still the top dog among heroes. Unfortunately, Morrison I think misses the mark in answering those core questions with respect to Diana in Earth One. He gives us a well-crafted story with a number of clever and risky elements that nevertheless fails to ever really feel like the story of Wonder Woman.

Good critics make a distinction between how much they like something and how good it is. Funny Games and Matchpoint are both excellent films that I absolutely hate. By the same token, Wonder Woman Earth One is a very good comic that I do not like very much. This dislike is a product of my answer to the above question about what Wonder Woman should be. As good as Morrison's writing is, I don't think Wonder Woman should be the sort of character he gives us.

WWE1 is a provocative, unique take on the world's most iconic female superhero. The story takes the character back to her roots – to the golden age origin established by original creator William Moulton Marston. Marston's Wonder Woman challenged a lot of the cultural and sexual norms of the middle 20th century. Golden Age Wonder Woman explored ideas such as bondage, female domination, submission, and matriarchy. Marston was a psychologist by trade and one of the original inventors of the polygraph, hence Wonder Woman's 'lasso of truth'. His writings at times suggest a belief in female superiority, his work with lie detectors apparently leading him to believe that women were more honest than men. The early Wonder Woman comics show the Amazon society as a kind of utopia. There is a motif of characters constantly being tied up and physically bound with “loving submission” presented as a kind of virtue.

The Wonder Woman we all know and love today is quite different from Marston's original take. Morrison clearly wanted to re-examine that history in WWE1, and he does it with style and wit. He gives us a society of gorgeous immortal Amazons in a hidden city filled with sci-fi gadgets and flying machines. These Amazons make no bones about how they look down on our world for tolerating flaws like disease, death, obesity, and men. The Amazons, including Diana, see themselves as paragons to be emulated by human women and worshiped by human men. The basic conflict of the story concerns the accidental arrival of Steve Trevor, the first man to set foot on the island. When Diana sticks her neck out to protect him she is forced to stand trial for violating Amazon law.

It is a great setup and a daring comic overall, especially as an origin story. Morrison confidently puts his own twist on some of the Golden Age concepts and characters. The feminism is more militant and in your face than Marston ever dared. Wonder Woman is made openly lesbian when she casually lets Steve know that one of the Amazons is her lover. Morrsion makes Etta Candy into an unlikely spokeswoman for the ladies of “man's world.” He also makes Steve Trevor black and treats him the way female 'damsel in distress' characters often get treated in the comics of male heroes. While I don't like when writers change the race of established characters (I find it to be both pointless and patronizing, and I say that as a black guy) I found Morrison's use of Steve effective in the way he melded the theme of bondage with the racial history of the character. In spite of all the risks Morrison takes, it is still a very authentic Wonder Woman story that leverages parts of her history modern readers may not recognize.

It helps that the art is top notch. Yanick Paquette's rich visuals are almost worth the price of admission. His Amazons are full-bodied, athletic, and beautiful. His Themyscira is both fantastical and futuristic. While I wouldn't put it on the same level as Jim Lee or Alex Ross' work, the art of WWE1 is powerful and is more than a match for any of the other books in the Earth One series.

The reason I don't see it as a good Wonder Woman story is because I think the character has evolved beyond her kinky 1940's origins. This is not a bad thing; all characters evolve. The original Superman was a bald villain with psychic powers. It goes without saying that Superman today is much more than that. The original version of Motoko from Ghost in the Shell was a snarky tough girl who did online sex shows for money in her spare time. The film version dropped all of that and created a brooding, stoic heroine that became the iconic interpretation used in subsequent TV series, comics, and films. I doubt Hollywood would be launching a big budget live action film with Scarlett Johansson if the character had stayed true to her campy roots.

Great characters endure because they evolve. The core aspects of the character that resonate with fans remain while distracting details are shed. The same basic issue applies to Wonder Woman. The bondage-loving femdom character of Marston's Matriarchal fantasies is no longer the essential version of the character most of us recognize, and that's a good thing. She is so much more now. In the same way Batman is no longer just a gun-toting crime fighter. Superman no longer cares only about fighting for the American way. They have transcended their Golden Age trappings and become something greater. In Wonder Woman's case I would argue that George Perez and Alex Ross created the most definitive versions of the character. The latter's work Spirit of Truth in particular I would argue is the best representation of the character as a compassionate champion of justice who fights for the rights of men and women. There's no partisanship – just heroism.

Morrison's Wonder Woman in Earth One is not terribly heroic or even kind. She is bold and strong, sure, but never do we see a willingness to confront evil – to risk it all. Sure, she stands up to her sisters, but there is not much tension here given how much more powerful Diana is than them. The lack of action in the story doesn't help. The bulk of the conflict happens through conversation and flashbacks, including the finale. Certainly it is very possible to make a good climax that is all dialogue, and I like that Morrison is willing to defy convention. Still, all the talk does not serve the character very well. Diana, Hippolyta, and her Amazon sisters all come across as sanctimonious hypocrites.

For example in one scene Hippolyta shows Diana images of man's world and we see a woman in her underwear on a leash held by a man. This is meant to show how man's world has 'degraded' womankind. But this feels weirdly chauvinistic and puritanical coming from an island of women who engage in drunken lesbian bondage orgies. What if that woman is getting paid a lot of money to wear that leash, and is using it to pay for a degree in astrophysics? What if she finds it empowering? What if she is exactly where she wants to be in that moment? If we're going to go heavy with feminist politics in Wonder Woman in 2016, lets at least upgrade her to the third wave where she can respect women's right to make their own choices. To see Diana and the Amazons berrate women for everything from how they dress, to their body types, to their desire to enjoy the company of men – it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

Reading the book, I was not sure whether or not Morrison intended for us to like the Amazons at all. It is kind of funny how they castigate men for being violent, then send a horrific monster into a crowded city just to murder Steve out of spite. I assume, given Diana's oppositional stance to the Amazons, that she was meant to be a figure the reader would root for, but she does little to really earn it. She comes across as haughty and self-righteous. She is harshly critical of almost every character with whom she interacts. She has not one word of praise for anything in man's world. When the question of Steve Trevor's romantic intentions toward Diana is raised, he quickly self-flagellates, saying she is “out of his league.” Diana does not dispute this. I doubt any writer would dare have Lois Lane say such a thing about Superman, but we all know that if she did, good old down-to-earth Clark would be quick to dismiss it with a smile. For me, there was not much to smile about in WWE1. It is an interesting book, but not a very fun or inspiring one.

The book made me long for the Lynda Carter version of Diana. Cheesy as it was, it was the most natural expression of Wonder Woman as someone both tough yet feminine. Carter's Wonder Woman embodied typical feminine virtues – grace, beauty, kindness – while also displaying the strength and fearlessness of a superhero. Your typical “strong female protagonist” these days tries to copy male heroes by being either an emotionless killing machine or a rude, snarky grrrrl power type. Carter's (and Ross' and Perez's) Wonder Woman would have none of this. She never apologized for being a lady and having class. She could go from beating up monsters in one scene to charming Nazi spies in an evening gown in the next, and make it look easy. Morrison's Wonder Woman prefers the more typical tough girl approach.

Earth One Wondie is aloof, supremely confident, and constantly standing in judgment of those around her. Sure, she helps people, but always in a way that seems self-serving. She is calculating and cold – ever ready to shame, mock, and condemn her fellow Amazons and mother should it serve her purposes. Her decision to disgrace her Amazonian lover in one scene is of dubious necessity. She reminded me of Batman in several moments. Sure, Batman is super cool. I just don't think Wonder Woman should copy his personality. The best versions of Diana incorporate a bit of humility.

What do you think Wonder Woman should be? Fans should ask themselves; “Is this what we want from Wonder Woman? Is this the direction she should go?” Ultimately I think WWE1 is a book that comic and Wondie fans alike should take the time to read and judge for themselves. The artwork alone makes it a nice addition to any comic book collection. What's more, WWE1 is as imaginative and layered as any Morrison story, and it mines an old, rich part of the character's heritage. It would be unfair to call the story inauthentic. WWE1 pays homage to the character's creator with a respectful treatment of his ideas. It is a worthwhile exercise to examine this side of Diana and her Amazons.

Nevertheless, it is not an ideal origin story. Morrison's Wonder Woman is too mired in her own politics to really feel like the classic hero we all know and love. I almost wish it were called “Wonder Woman: Golden Age,” as it does not fit with the other Earth One comics that did a better job of modernizing their subjects. Like Superman, Batman, and Motoko, Wonder Woman has evolved, and trying to turn the clock back serves only to make her smaller. Simply put, she should be better than this.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Some Music

This is the catchiest song in the history of songs: (Starts around 1:11, though the opening is important for context)

Some Japanese rock. Kind of a Weezer vibe. These guys are actually pretty cool.


Comfy as fuck


Bluesy as fuck


My son really loves Waits' voice and this video is more tolerable for him:


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Mensa

I am now officially a member of Japan Mensa. Pretty sure I'm the only black member too, which is kind of funny.

I took the test and joined American Mensa and Mensa International a few months ago.

I am not especially interested in high IQ societies as a concept. I took the test as a personal challenge and did not assume I would pass. When I did and saw the cool discounts membership offers, I decided to join.

IQ is an interesting thing. I believe that it does matter, even if our tests are flawed. Intelligence is extremely relevant to social policy and our understanding of human behavior. I read The Bell Curve a while ago and found it compelling.

At some point I may write up a whole thing about intelligence, genetics, and the political implications of their relationship.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice Review




Batman vs. Superman is a grand dramatic deconstruction of superhero mythology – an ambitious film that ultimately does not live up to its big vision. It is, if you follow its marketing, at once a simple popcorn blockbuster action flick and also a modern day fable about the obligations of power and the will to do good in an amoral society. It is a story of three orphan boys – Lex Luthor, Bruce Wayne, Kal El, and their attempts to live up to their father's ideals, and the misplaced anger at god that the first two men focus on the third. Batman vs. Superman moreso than any other comic book movie in recent history is a film that had the potential to really transcend, but as one character in the film says of another, the movie “flew too close to the sun,” and ultimately crashed under its own weight.
 
To fairly criticize a film you have to understand what it is trying to do. Once you understand a film's goals, you can break down how effectively it accomplishes them. In terms of goals, some films are more ambitious than others. The Avengers, for example, had only a few simple goals: Put together a bunch of heroes against a decent villain, have tons of great action, and be funny. It succeeded in all three cases and thus was very well-regarded. By contrast, consider The Dark Knight. It had far more complex goals. It had to complicate and develop the story of Batman, introduce a new Joker, improve on the action and effects from the first film, tell the tragic story of Harvey Dent and Rachel, and all the while, tell a noir-ish story that exemplifies complex moral themes about sacrifice, justice, and the nature of heroism. It succeeded on all fronts, some spectacularly (Joker) and thus is by my measure a better film than Avengers.

Man of Steel and Batman v Superman are similar to Dark Knight in that they too are films with lofty ambitions. In that regard, I have a genuine respect for them, in the same way I respect the guy who falls short trying to paint a Mona Lisa more than someone content to make really good stick figures. I also respect Warner Brothers' willingness to take risks. They tried to appeal to nostalgia with Superman Returns, and failed. They went in the other direction and gave us not-your-daddy's Superman in Man of Steel. It was ballsy to go so dark and heavy with a character that iconic. In BvS, they go even further. They make Superman emotional and menacing at times, do away with Batman's no kill rule, and present an unsettling, mercurial version of Lex Luthor that fans are not likely to recognize. In a world of endless safe, soft remakes, reboots, sequels, and rehashes, I have to give credit when I see a big corporate studio put hundreds of millions of dollars into such a daring interpretation of their biggest properties.

That said, not all risks pay off in the end. One of the problems Warner Brothers has run into with Nolan and Snyder helming their DC properties is that their movies seem to assume that, for a movie to be 'serious', it has to be bleak and oppressive in tone. This is a false dichotomy; DC does not have to copy the light, popcorn-flick tone of Marvel to be successful. The issue is that the dark, angry tone worked for the Batman trilogy as his story is very much about the blacker parts of human nature. Superman, however, represents something different. His film needed a serious but more aspirational tone, something between The First Avenger and Interstellar. In fact the better parts of Man of Steel have that vibe, and it isn't just because of the soundtrack. BvS unfortunately doubles down on the grittiness, resulting in the narrative's inadequacies coming into sharper relief.

So what exactly is BvS trying to do and how well does it do those things? Lets start with the first question. It seems to me the movie has six goals:

1. Introduce Batman, give us his basic characterization, and establish his motive for fighting Superman.
2. Develop the character of Superman by having him wrestle with his role in the world.
3. Present a thought-provoking moral theme about accountability and power.
4. Introduce Wonder Woman, make her intriguing, make us care about her story.
5. Introduce a new take on Lex Luthor.
6. Build a foundation for the Justice League movie and other individual character movies.

As we have learned from Spiderman 3, movies with more than three or four big goals are likely not going to succeed at all of them. BvS is a movie trying to do a lot of stuff, even with a full three-hour runtime in the uncut R-rated version. Before I break down each goal and how the film did, I'll just give my basic grade for each one:

1. B
2. D
3. C
4. C+
5. C
6. B-

Lets start with the introduction of Batman. The movie economically gives us the tragedy of Bruce's parents in a well-done opening section. His motive for mistrusting Superman is established convincingly. I thought Affleck embodied the character with a quiet rage that worked well for the film's first half. In terms of the look – the suit, the car, the gear – this is probably the best Batman that's ever been put to film. I was even OK with him being willing to use lethal force as this is a much more jaded war-weary character whose no kill rule probably led to personal tragedy. Where it breaks down is in the film's final act. The setup for the fight involved a needlessly convoluted plot with Luthor forcing Superman to attack Bruce. They should have just let Batman strike first (there's even a great mention of the Wayne family having a heritage as hunters) by tracking Superman. Furthermore, Batman's change of heart regarding Superman felt really contrived and abrupt. Not much payoff for such a long-hyped showdown.

Superman is not done many favors by the story either. When he isn't being a tough guy, saying things like “consider this mercy,” and “I'll take you in without breaking you, which is more than you deserve,” he is either babysitting Lois or feeling sorry for himself. The relationship with Lois I felt dragged down his presence a good bit. What's more his one big opportunity to make a speech and maybe say something interesting is literally blown up. Superman has some great moments, to be sure. He genuinely tries to be a hero and is willing to sacrifice himself when needed. He also has some of the greatest visuals in the film. There is one really powerful scene where he rescues a girl from a fire and is surrounded by an awe-struck crowd. Unfortunately the movie just does not do much to improve the character.

Part of the reason the character is not served by the film is the fact that the core theme is basically abandoned by the film's final act. The story takes pains to set up a reasonable critique of Superman's choices with a subplot involving his intervention in Africa to save Lois. There is a fantastic montage featuring some very famous writers and thinkers that digs into some of the more abstract ramifications of a being like Superman. It's great stuff that the rest of the film does not live up to as the story instead opts for wacky villain plots, kidnappings, and monster fights. In The Dark Knight, the action of the story embodies the abstract ideas. “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the bad guy,” “We burned down the forest,” “When the chips are down these civilized people will eat each other.” The story's ending is powerful as a result. In BvS, by contrast, there's just a lot of self-serious talk divorced from heavily contrived fight scenes. As a result of this (and other reasons), the ending felt quite cheap.

As for Wonder Woman and Lex, I think both were a mixed bag. Gadot looked the part and was great in the action scenes. She just does not have much charisma out of the costume. Great actors own the role – make you feel like no one else could do what they did, like Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man or Ledger's Joker. I am pretty sure 100 other actresses could have done what Gadot did and likely better. Still, she wasn't bad, and her plot thread got me intrigued about Wonder Woman's story. I am looking forward to that film next year.

Eisenberg's Luthor was also interesting but flawed. I really respect what he was trying to do with the role. He did not ride the coattails of Hackman and Spacey, which is good as the cigar-chomping real-estate scheming Luthor of the 70's would have felt anachronistic. Instead Eisenberg went for a manic narcissistic millennial vibe. He speaks cryptically and drops lots of references, to show off his intelligence. He dresses like a hipster, plays pick up basketball, awkwardly flubs public speeches, and does inappropriate things with candy (I'll leave that to your imagination if you haven't seen it yet). He is young, a genius, and extremely rich, so it makes sense that he has some idiosyncrasies. I think Eisenberg succeeded in making the character unpredictable and unnerving. The problem is that he never came off as a true mastermind type of threat, and it is for a simple reason: His Big Evil Plan was dumb. I don't even really know why he hated Superman to begin with. In the comics, Luthor is one of the smartest men on the planet with ten different contingency plans and a thoughtful, humanistic motivation for hating Superman. In BvS, he's just a snotty weirdo who isn't even clever enough to stay out of prison.

Finally there is the question of future movies – the universe building. BvS does this in a few points. Batman's dream sequence which foreshadows the true DC big bad, Darkseid, is one of the film's most interesting moments. A cameo from the Flash at the scene's end will add to your curiosity. Beyond that what we get is a weirdly-timed montage of security footage confirming the existence of three other Justice League members. On the one hand, I like that the movie introduced the characters in a way that did not feel forced or interrupt the main story. On the other hand, it does feel cheap. It could have used some polish and maybe a bit more screen time. Suffice to say we now know that the next movie will feature Batman seeking out the other Justice League members. There is potential there for an quality, unconventional superhero movie if done right.

Ultimately Batman v Superman is a missed opportunity – another ambitious big budget adaptation from DC that is bound to divide critics and fans. While Warner Brothers is already full steam ahead on Justice League and Wonder Woman films, I do hope they reconsider Snyder, Goyer, and Nolan's approach, if not replace some of these guys. They all have talent, sure, but it just has not translated into good Superman stories. I say this as a comic fan who is glad to see Marvel have some competition at the box office from more mature, challenging superhero movies. Here's hoping Suicide Squad and the next batch of non-Snyder DC movies can keep the genre interesting.