Monday, December 19, 2011

Studios Studiously Stick to Steadfast Solicitation of Salary

@Veirut says: "I suppose I'd be interested in something that would answer "what compels American cinema to do so many rehashes (rehashing foreign films, rehashing older films, etc.)?" It's something that kind of irks me, I guess, but it seems vague and uninformed, too."

Let me preface this all by saying that, yes, there are foreign countries with incredible amounts of rehashes and such. And yes, even Hollywood, in all its blockbuster, CGI glory, puts out some wonderful films.

But, and I say this without any snide factor or sarcastic statement of the obvious, in Hollywood, it really is all about the money. More so than other countries, because more money is involved. The corporate machinations behind Hollywood are certainly apparent in different ways in all countries, but Hollywood's groveling before corporations and commercial interests in probably the worst in this regard. Once again, money and power begets money and power.

It's easy to take a very cynical look to Hollywood when you start to really examine how it works. Again; there are some great works that come out. But the amount of rehashes and remakes shouldn't come as a surprise. In many ways, the movie industry is becoming more like the gaming industry, in this regard.

I'm going to use a personal anecdote here, forgive me, but it's one that stays with me. I used to know a guy who is now at New York University - arguably the best film school in the world - and is already an acclaimed director for his young age (22). He started making films, legitimate, contest winning films, as early as high school. At that time, I was still fumbling around with what I wanted to be when I got older (still am, mind you), and we got to the subject of working on movies. Around then, I was into writing - mostly short stories and the like - but we talked about writing screenplays for movies, since we had both worked on movies together on several occasions, and I had helped write some. My friend mentioned to me that writing screenplays is really a shit job, because ultimately, you don't get to write anything. The average screenplay goes through dozens of rewrites and edits by everyone but the original writer, to the point where it often doesn't resemble its original form at all.

And the thing is, a lot of screenplays these days aren't even written by the expert writers who set out to write them. Producers; the guys who once mostly helped get together funding and logistics support, while occasionally influencing the staff, now oftentimes come up with the plot itself. The mental state is different here; a writer knows that in order to get a screenplay accepted by a company to use, it has to be seen as good. A producer doesn't have that oversight - he or she is a big-time step in nabbing money and logistics - and so they often can do what they want since they're the ones providing a lot towards the movie.

And so, many times, the producer comes up with the movie and the concept. At this point, a producer will sit down with the "plot" and attempt to hit at least two of the four Hollywood markets. These are young females, young males, older females, and older males (last I checked, this constitutes a lot of people). Hollywood oftentimes looks down on grabbing all four (unless you work for Pixar), and so what you have is, say, a producer come up with an action movie (Giant Explosions Part 4: Explosions in Space, for the younger men) and then try to ham-fist another market in there. Since Hollywood is still stuck in the 50s at times, this means that romance is inserted to appeal to the younger women (this often amounts to the gung-ho hero meeting a chick and banging her 30 minutes later, hooray subtlety).

Now that the "plot" is formulated, it's time to call a writer to come up with dialogue to fill up time between explosions and sex and CGI. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place. There's only so many ways you can make Shia LeBeouf or Mark Wahlberg look like a decent actor. In many ways, it's kind of like the Dr. Pepper "It's not for women!" commercials (yes, they are terrible, by the way.) There's a point when the character in the commercial is riding in a Jeep, he throws something out of it to get rid of three Jeeps trailing him, and then points to the camera, with a big cheesy grin, and says "catchphrase!" Besides being the only worthwhile part of the incredibly sexist ad, that is, essentially, what screenwriters of action movies, and even other movies, are distilled to. Coming up with that all important catchphrase.

Obviously, action is not the only genre in Hollywood, but the process remains the same. Producers are seeing an increasing role in movie creation, screenwriters a decreasing one. This is increasingly making money a bigger and bigger motivating factor, and since producers aren't usually involved in the creative industry or practiced in writing, they fall back on established properties, remakes, and rehashes. You have to wonder where the motivation for anyone to actually want to be a screenwriter will come from in the future, knowing that you as a writer will have little say at all in your script.

There are still some steps that may involve writers. Some movies start out with spec scripts; original scripts that writers basically send out anywhere and everywhere in the hopes of getting noticed. Even then, producers, associates, and other writers will sit down and go over an accepted spec strip and redo do it halfway to Timbuktu. And even still, spec scripts may just work as examples that producers use to hire a writer, and then assign that writer to an entirely different project. "Oh hey, you wrote that powerful social-political analysis and moving tragedy of academic competition in East-Asia. We're having you write catchphrases for Explosions Part 5: Explosions in Absolute Zero."

The Halloween franchise was basically given to John Carpenter by two producers who wanted a movie involving a psycho babysitter that murdered people. His original films and ideas that he wanted to work on were far different. Even original IPs are often remade and rebranded to be a familiar property; "I, Robot," "Starship Troopers," and the "Diehard" and "Ocean's Eleven" sequels started as original projects that were morphed into old stories and add-ons.

And it's not just the lack of creative insight on the part of writers and such that hamper new ideas and IPs. There's a need to appeal to the international market. "Cool guys walking away from explosions" is pretty universal. Repelling an alien invasion hellbent on destroying the planet is pretty universal. The aforementioned academic rigors of post Lost Decade Japan aren't going to strike a chord with many people outside of Japan. And between subtitles and dub jobs losing culturally specific humor or references in translation, there's a perceived need by studios to keep it simple and stupid. This is why a sequel or remake is so easy; it's already a franchise people are familiar with and understand.

For instance, "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" isn't even in the top ten in the US in all-time gross - it's 18th. Worldwide? It sits up there at number 5 all-time. This isn't because foreign audiences are simplistic or anything, and marketing plays a big role, too, but giant robots that blow stuff up is more universal. Everyone knows what is going on, who the bad guys are, and what's at stake if the good guys lose (even if they never do). It's not something that gets lost amid the myriad of global cultures. Just look at some of our favourite anime works; "Spirited Away" was backed by Disney, won an Academy Award, and was Japan's highest grossing movie of all-time. America itself was seeing an animation renaissance from the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks. But it never did anything stateside, because a lot of the cultural values are somewhat Japanese. And oh yeah, "2012"? $166 million in the US (181st all-time). Worldwide it did over $600 million (37th all-time).

This explains the rehash of foreign films, too. American production companies often seek to "globalize" foreign films that they get their hands on, in an effort, once again, to appeal to a larger market.

There's way, way more egregious cockblocking that studios do with regards to movies, and many of the other problems are terrifyingly worse. Want to know why the indie movie scene that every year is supposed to "take off" or "revolutionize" film never happens? Why the end of rehashes and commercialization and uncreative Hollywood never takes place? One major reason is how the studios rig the rating system. The MPAA is the largest studio lobbyist group, and oversees the ratings board and pays their salaries. The MPAA is funded by major studios and run by them, who then essentially run the "non-partisan" ratings board. Want to know why that creative and dark indie movie that flashed tits for five seconds got an NC-17, but big studio produced "Blood, Guts, Sex, and Fuck" skates by with an R rating even though it has a 20 minute bestiality scene that ended up in machete decapitation? It's because the studios want the studio made movie (the latter) to make the money, but not the indie movie that they have no ties to. So the creative and fresh indie movie gets an NC-17 and is never seen of nor heard of again, and "Blood, Guts, Sex, and Fuck" ends up delighting high school and college bachelors forever.

And then there is merchandising. Infact, just the other day me and a couple online buddies were discussing why Pixar made Cars 2 and not some new, witty, charming IP that they seem so good at.

Because toys!

Merchandise is a huge, huge part of the movie industry, as it brings in about $140 billion a year. Not only that, it provides a large profit margin for the studios, who don't have to advertise, make, ship, or oversee the toys (the toy company does that), but can charge a large licensing fee. And you wonder why there was a post-Episode 3 (but pre-episode 4) Han Solo action figure even before episodes 1-3 came out. Nobody ever said George Lucas doesn't love his money (admittedly, I owned the action figure, and it was pretty cool when I was growing up). Disney alone has made over $8 billion from Cars merchandise. Avatar, the highest grossing movie of all time, made "just" $2.7 billion from ticket sales.

So, what does this have to do with your question? Merchandise can build on two things; universality, and previous works. It is much easier to sell toys for an established franchise, and much easier to sell toys for a Michael Bay or James Cameron movie than a Jamin Winins one, especially when the former pair often has big robots, big explosions, and little clothing, all of which can connect with just about anyone.

What all of this means is that we all get to enjoy more of the same from Hollywood. One day when you're 80 years old, you can complain about not having 4D smell-o-vision in your Transformers movie like they will in 2070, or some such.

Sources used: (Top Grossing Films)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The ECB or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bonds

Lots of talk has been growing lately about the fate of the EU in the midst of by far its biggest economic crisis in its still short existence. Some have even gone so far as to say that the EU will collapse, that it was always going to collapse, or that it should be ditched, anyways.

The EU was and still remains a good idea. As a cultural achievement it is unique, and as a recipe for further cooperation and cultural ties, it remains potent. The economic problems of the European bloc are largely independent of the EU existing or not, with the only real drag being that countries like Greece can not affect their money, as they are tied to the Euro. Their debt issues, however, are not an EU cause and effect.

Monetary issues aside, the EU is not in its final throws or doomed to insolvency. The new "fiscal union" is still a bit wishy-washy but it's a definite step in the right direction.

One looming problem is France and Germany and how they have wrangled such control over the EU, with Central and Eastern European members publically complaining about their diminishing political role. Merkel and Germany want to bring in "Ordnung" and a more focused drive on austerity and low wage growth and such, and that's a fair suggestion, considering how America's systemic debt wreaked havoc on the economy, but with France and Germany offering the only two visions for the EU so far, and both of them being rather long term in nature, someone needs to step in and convince the investors and bond markets that in the short term, defaults/state bankruptcies aren't going to happen. The ECB needs to be fully involved at this point, but the Germans aren't letting them introduce cash into the system. Austerity is a good long term solution, but growth is the biggest issue right now, particularly in southern Europe. But with the UK - well, Cameron at least - continuing to want to be a footnote in Europe, there may not be any country that can offer a third option to Germany and France.

However, one of the root problems has been, and continues to be, the EU's low growth. This model of low growth, low consumption, low inflation, low unemployment, and low wage increase, is the model that Germany has followed and tried to push, but it's just not the best model to follow. This is why austerity isn't going to work right now, and why Germany's race to the bottom through trade surplus has been so damning to the EU.

Besides general reform to make the EU more efficient, less susceptible to corruption, etc., Germany needs to stop fighting the Eurobonds move, more bailout money needs to be offered to countries that require it to be kept afloat, and the ECB needs to be allowed to inflate the Euro. The lack of monetary flexibility and resistance to it is just throwing a wrench into the whole system. The problem is that individual countries inside the EU can't inflate or deflate their currency to meet economic needs, since they're all tied to the Euro. But if the ECB can't influence the Euro, then one of the most crucial elements on the table is gone.

Then, Germany just needs to give up its current economic trajectory. Low growth and siphoning wealth away from other countries via the trade surplus throws everyone under the bus, including Germany if the whole system fails.

China has already offered gobs of money to the EU, but has requested trade normalization, which the west, seeing China as the big bad boogey man, seems hesitant to do. But both the US and China have huge vested interests in the EU, particularly China, which, as an export based economy, needs that market to retain its (the EU) consumer spending. China is also trying to buy influence on an international stage; what better way then to help the EU with some money when needed? And while Germany is part of the problem, as I alluded to, they have the money and resources to help alleviate it.

Unfortunately, a lot of the conservative groups are switching this economic debate into a political one, and trying to limit the central bank, regulation, and labor laws. Those won't inherently fix the growth problem - see, the US. Monetary fixes and spending are what is needed to be done, which neither ideological base seems intent on. Sometimes, you have to bite the bullet. Hardcore, compromise-less ideology does not always work in politics. Did anyone in the US want to see tax money given to car companies? Not particularly, but the alternative was much worse. Same with the EU. Do we want to see the banks and governments get our money? No, not really. But more people don't want a severe depression, either.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Ar Tonelico: Melody of Elemia

Folks, I want to talk about Ar Tonelico. It's a somewhat niche JRPG series that is perhaps most well known for its risque material. The 3rd in particular (I have not played it yet) exaggerates the already ridiculous outfits and innuendo to the extreme, I am led to believe.

Yes, Ar Tonelico: Melody of Elemia (the first game in said series) is a borderline harem - although as of now it's "only" two girls. Yes, you install crystals into their bodies and it's made out like a sex scene - "be gentle when you put it in, it's my first time!" "it's bigger than I thought!" and other statements like that (and I am paraphrasing a bit). Yes, you dive into the girl's mind and look into their subconscious to power them up and get them costumes that enhance their magic. And yes, some of these costumes are revealing; one is a bath towel. That's it.

So on its face, I should not like this game. But, in all honesty, it is one of the more enjoyable games I have had in awhile.

Perhaps the most crucial thing this game does, considering its subject matter, is never take itself too seriously. It pokes fun at the various, sometimes seemingly Japanese, tropes that it revels in. It's never super serious, dark, or gritty, and there's a sense of comedy and light-heartedness that let's you know that this game should not be taken seriously, as the creators probably didn't either. It feels like one big guilty pleasure they made, and we get to enjoy it. When one character leaves the party for a bit and is replaced by a much more buxom, yet totally different looking gal, another party member, not aware of the change, simply believes that the first gal grew tits - and yells outloud asmuch. Nobody in real life would confuse the two women, but hey, let's get the word "tits" in here somehow, right? But for all the borderline objectification of women here, mostly by way of their clothing and pandering to our main, male protagonist, they are far from weak and helpless. Many of them have survived in roles of leadership, individual living, dangerous conditions, and/or other such perilous terms. And the main character females, the Reyatails who augment your party with song magic, are the most powerful characters in the game- no contest.

It's this sort of give-and-take that goes so well. The main protagonist is a bit of a naive guy; pleading innocence at the overt sexual dialogue that occurs. He's also a bit of a social klutz. But not so much that he becomes a caricature or a trope; indeed, I hesitate to use that phrase because he is also, quite simply, a very nice and caring guy, too. And yes, he has a big sword and somewhat spiky hair.

What really sets this game apart though is that on the rare occasions that it does get serious, it does so strikingly well. In one scene, our female Reyatail Misha is divulging some personal information. Throughout life, she appeared boisterous and confident, and exuded a sort of cocky and self-assured charm. However, it was all a projection of sorts to try to bury her inner-fears and self-doubt from a demanding past. No, this is not literary revolution. But it's handled well, and without melodrama or overwhelming angst in-game, which is more than about 90% of video games can say.

The battle system itself is very complex, potentially, but it does not utilize itself fully because the battles themselves are relatively easy. Between attacks, song magic, skills, blocking, harmonics, and various gauges to fill, there's a lot to do, but most battles boil down to; attack with frontline characters, wait for Reyatail to charge up Song Magic, and once charged, use powerful magic to one-hit the opposing team. Only in the elongated boss battles can things get a bit more complex, but even still, I am now about 18 hours into the game and on segment 2 of the story, and I have yet to have a party wipe.

There is, though, a metric ton of customization to do. There are weapons; all of which can be augmented, and the same can be done with armor. Magic can be augmented, as well as the song magic; as with the weapons, it is done through the use of crystals that can change their effects and such. Items of all kinds; from consumables to equipment and everything in between, can be created/crafted. Old items can be broken down into crystals to use for all of the augmentation. There is a lot of tweaking and customizing of characters to be had.

Another thing that Ar Tonelico gets some props for is the music. And it is absolutely deserved. The haunting, Ghost in the Shell reminiscent opening is wonderful, and the music runs the gamut from serene and peaceful, to fast-paced rap for battles. It's a wonderful soundtrack. The voice acting, too, is respectable, although some of the creature characters are a bit annoying. The main characters feature the likes of Vic Mignogna and other well-traveled VAs.

I still have a ways to go in the first game in the series, and we'll see how far I get into games two and three. But so far, the overt sexism is minimal, the humour and self-awareness the game displays in regards to its level of ridiculousness is great, and the actual gameplay elements are quite enjoyable. Colour me surprised for now, but pleasantly so, as I have put more time into this game than I have into a video game in quite awhile.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

America Got Robbed

While the debt deal reached by Obama and Congressional leaders for the US federal budget/debt ceiling debacle has yet to pass through Congress (and given how some Tea Party members vowed to not raise the debt ceiling under any circumstances, nothing is final until it is, well, final), it does look like there should be enough support from Congress to hammer the deal through, considering time is about to run out.

This entire fiasco has proved that Congress is getting more dysfunctional by the day. In the last elections, under increasing scrutiny towards the rapidly increasing federal debt, Americans voted in idealogue Tea Party Republicans to manhandle the budget and reel in spending. It is amazing, many months later, how much power this minority of elected repreentative and grassroots movement holds in Washington.

In revisiting this mess, it's important to understand some things. As of today, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the US government around $1.3 tillion.

The fabled Bush tax cuts that still exist to this day?

$2.8 trillion.

Run that through your head a bit; the Bush tax cuts, of which there isn't a single shred of evidence that they spurred economic growth, have cost the US more money than the Iraq and Afghanistan wars doubled.

The tax cuts ended up being one of the single most costly economic pieces of legislation in years, and a perfect example of the Republican "starve the beast" policy, in which Republicans seek to slash revenue to block federal spending and create budget crunches to stranglehold the social safety net. No, this is not a conspiracy, it was expressly advocated by George Bush and more recently, Sarah Palin.

Fast forward to 2011, and with most moderates kicked out of Congress, the debt ceiling deal was increasingly held hostage by right-wingers who pledged against a single dollar in increased taxes, and wanted to see massive cuts. The Tea Party demographic had already hurt the economy once before; by rallying against stimulus plans that, while they didn't keep unemployment under the rate that Obama and the Democrats shot for, did save jobs across the country and prevent the recession from being worse. Most economists who realized that government spending is often the best way out of an economic downturn (see the Great Depression for an example) said that the stimulus wasn't big enough.

But then what? How do we fund it? Our debt is admittedly very large. Why not put the Bust tax cuts on the table? Their biggest rate of deductions was for the upper class, so why not slash them a bit to get some revenue and allow for some more financial wiggling room?

But it wasn't an option. Republicans protested, and now, with the debt ceiling crisis occuring, the Tea Party representatives even rebelled against other conservatives, threatening to cause a debt default in the name of their ideology. Even conservative House Speaker John Boehner seemed frustrated at the inability to wrangle his own party under his guidance.

And what did we get out of all of this? A terrible deal. No tax increases, massive spending cuts, and a "compromise" that will anger all parties; social conservatives for cutting defense, social liberals for cutting programs, fiscal conservatives for not enough cuts, fiscal progressives for no new taxes. Discretionary spending, which things like education and job training fall under, will be at its lowest point in over 50 years. Financially struggling states will be under an even greater burden now, with expected increasing class sizes, and decreasing public security jobs and infrastructure work.

Obama deserves blame here for letting his foot off the gas. While nobody wants a default (well, except for maybe the Tea Party, of whom many claimed that Obama's concerns regarding default was merely fear-mongering), he let himself and the Dems get manhandled by the conservative bloc. Poll after poll had the public on Obama's side, with more anger directed at Republicans. US citizens supported a mixed bag of cuts and taxes.

The Republicans had the deck stacked against them. Anything but a deal with no taxes would have been seen as a loss. Tax increase? Loss. Default? Loss for both sides, but more blame on Republicans.

So what did Obama and the Dems do? Let them win. Blinked first. Gave in. Understanding how difficult it was to play with fire, the Tea Party bloc is still a minority in the House, and almost nonexistant in the Senate. Just like the Health Care legislation that Obama let the Republicans dictate, he let them control the field of battle here and spread their ideology. He doesn't have the spine to hold his own head in place.

Even more traditionally right-wing journals like the FT and Economist endorsed tax increases as vital for long term financial stability. Cuts alone won't get us in balance, there simply isn't enough tax revenue. Corporations like GE pay 0 dollars in income tax each year. These journals endorsed the 83:17 cuts to taxes ratio put forward by the Dems, saying it was farily close to what they, as traditionally fiscal conservative policy people, saw as optimal.

It will be interesting to see if this deal gets through the Senate and House. The Senate is probably a given, but the Tea Partiers in the House are the wild card. It's hard to imagine them passing up on a compromise heavily tilted in their favor, but with these folks, nothing is certain.

At least we got some minor (key word; minor) defense cuts, but Americans here got ripped off. The average man will suffer. The Republicans prove that they are truly the ones in power, even when they are not.

And Obama? You can forget those hopes and dreams... I just want some change. .

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


So, next time I go to my psychiatrist, I am going to try (key word "try") to bring up something that bothers me.

I can't be still.

When I stand, I rock back and forth, near constantly. When I sit, I often move a leg, and I very often shrug my shoulders. I find myself moving up jaw around a lot.

I didn't think anything of it, I didn't even realize it, until a couple days ago when I was rocking back and forth, and my sister asked if I could be still for a moment. So I sat down. That didn't work. I started shaking my leg. She asked me again to stay still.

It's very possible these are just bad habits I am developing. I already pick my nails and crack my neck. But this weird restlessness, is, well, weird. Like, if I stay motionless for a period of time, I get physically uncomfortable. But, it's better to ask, right?

Since I am ranting right now, I'd like to mention something that is getting more and more annoying by the day. That is the act of conversation.

Now, I haven't liked talking to people or listening to people talk in a long time. But it's getting worse. The act of talking physically annoys me. Some dude at work kept making small talk to me today, and it got so annoying that I did something I rarely do; I snapped online. I was talking with some friends in a chat and I just started typing profanities in all caps, silently yelling at them that I wanted my coworker to can it. Talking is just killing me, seriously. It's a lot like physical contact; if I could avoid it forever, I might. Physical contact makes me wretch away, listening to talking or talking myself is getting to that point too. Woo~!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Home is (Not) Where the Heart Is

Boy oh boy, where to start. I feel like I haven't done this in a long time.

This weekend was my second annual attendance at JAFAX, a free, grassroots based anime con run on the campus of Grand Valley State University that attracts several thousand nerds alike.

I am now sad.

Don't get me wrong; JAFAX 16 was a total, absolute blast. I love anime cons; taking in the atmosphere, seeing all the cosplays, the sense of family and comraderie among everyone. Laughing at crappy anime with people. The anime dating game this year was incredibly amazingly hilarious. Anime name that tune was fun. It was all great! I even got my picture taken 5 times (I was cosplaying as Naota Nandaba from FLCL).

So, why am I sad?

Friday, I left work at 11:30 AM to go to a concert north of here. Eve 6 was there, as well as three bands I had never heard of; Coldville, Push, and Deadwood Stone. I had a blast!

Then, Saturday and Sunday, JAFAX all day.

No time to worry about work. About life. About things. Mostly.

But the drive home? A trainwreck. Or a car crash.

I think my post awesome event depression is as close as I, as a male, can get to Post-Partum Depression. Anytime I am away from everything, I get sad when I have to return. The 1 hour car ride home stretched on for what felt like days, and at the same time, flew by in seconds, as I ruminated.

You see, anime cons, as much as I love them, are difficult for me, because I don't go with anyone and never will. And I don't hang out with anyone, and never will (I have no IRL friends). I love the crap out of them, but after pretending to be on my cell phone while at JAFAX for the 6th time or so, I realized that looking like you're alone is pretty much worse than being alone! Alas.

But JAFAX, Youmacon, PAX (video game con) were/are all great. I made the mistake of making friends way back in elementary school and junior high that would have trashed me and eaten me alive if they knew the extent of my nerdiness. These friends followed me into high school before I eventually cut all ties. Even my family, as much as they love and accept me, have a hard time not considering anime fandom weird and... childish. So these cons are a chance for me to be myself. To get away from work and responsiblity and be in an arena that is condusive to acceptance and friendship. And while this is 0 for 3 for me on introducing myself and making new friends, I can't help but feel like these moments are amazing. Like everything can be beautiful, and I can't take it.

I am 22 years old. In just a few years, I will be way at the top of the age bracket for these things. It's just a fact of life. I won't be the cool college age kid anymore, I'll be the sort of weird older 20s guy who finds a seat closest to the exit where nobody else is sitting and tried to act inconspicuous.

I don't want to get old. I can't imagine it. Ten years from now, I'll be even uglier, more out of shape, and have ten more years of solitude and failure under my belt. I want to die young. I feel like I am sitting on a bubble, and I throw all of my shit in that bubble, and it works, sometimes. But one day it is going to pop and cover me in all the shit I can think up.

It is Sunday night before work. JAFAX is gone for a year. Laughter that I experienced there won't be had for a long time. The memories will eventualy fade, like tears in rain. I won't cosplay again for a long time, because Youmacon is looking less and less likely as expenses pile up. Maybe it's for the best.

I had this post all drawn up on the way back home from JAFAX, and it sounded a lot cooler and more heartfelt and poetic then. Now, it is a mere shadow of its former self, lacking both the detail and the interesting factor that it could have.

Kind of like me.

I am sad.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

FLCL: The Literary and the Unliterary

This is a rehash of sorts, but I have now re-watched FLCL twice in the last couple months, and it has gone from near favorite to definite favorite. I have an actual legitimate blog entry in the works, don't worry. But for now, here's an older writeup.

What strikes me about FLCL is that it is both the farthest anime from literature possible and one of the closest.

Some of the visuals, like when Naota is shot out of Canti as a white hot bullet, and uncurls and cools off into his human form, just can't be done anywhere outside of animation. Ditto with a lot of the crazy facial expressions and the like. Same with the auditory facets.

But on the flip-side, it is rife with foreshadowing, motiff, symbolism, and satire. Enough to make you think it started as a book in some crazy corner of the galaxy.

I actually think FLCL succeeds in being one of the most thought provoking animated works of all time; a zany, postmodern, superflat work that encourages a discussion of its recurring symbolism and social criticism. It's almost too much, in some respects, with even little details like right-handed or left-handed coming into play (left-handers being controlled by the 'creative' right hemisphere on the brain, and right handers by the more analytical right hemisphere). Naota lacking a mother makes him search for a sort of hybrid mother/lover (have to slip in some song lyrics) from all the girls he meets. The "relationship" with him and his brother is excellent; not once do we ever truly see his brother, but we understand perfectly what Naota is going through in his seemingly conflicting idolization and frustration with his older sibling's successes. Because of all of this, Naota tries very hard to be an adult by the way he acts and even the food he eats, culminating symbolically in the phallus shaped bump protruding from his forehead, growing bigger as the OVA carries on. Naota's thus liminal state is abused by the sexual advances of Mamimi, who is looking for sexual output in the absence of her boyfriend, Naota's older brother. Mamimi is referred to as a "native girl" and serves as a critique of traditional Japanese sexualization and culture, in contrast to Naota's liminal state encompassing both Japan, and an increasingly American influence by way of his brother. Notice the baseball bat he always carries around that serves as both a reminder of Naota's brother and American cultural imports.

Haruko is completely alien to the the "Japanese" flavor of the other characters, not just in looks (her eyes and hair), but in the Italian Vespa scooter and the imported bass she wields. Naota is now caught between the influence of Japan; Mamimi, and foreign culture (mostly American and other western values) in Haruko. Interestingly, Haruko's randomness and seemingly overreaching assertions of control is portrayed mostly positively by way of Naota, who becomes increasingly infatuated with her (i.e., American/western culture). Haruko's supervision of Naota can be seen as a metaphor for American led reconstruction in post World War II Japan.

Ninamori provides the catalyst for Naota's ultimate choice between American and western culture in Haruko, and (arguably) traditional Japanese aristocracy and classism by way of the positive portrayal of Ninamori's upper class standing.

There's a lot of other symbolism; notice that when Naota discusses his older brother, an airplane is always shown flying overhead, symbolizing his departure from Japan, and tying into the ever-present American ethos. Obviously, the vast sexual symbolism (Naota's horn, which isn't so subtle) are going to be hit and miss for people, but I think the creators of FLCL did a good job, mostly, of making these meaningful as opposed to simply trying to sell sex. While at times it seems to be too heavy-handed or too frequent, I think it largely contributes to the show positively. Same with the self-referential nature of some of the fourth-wall breaking moments, which most works of any medium flounder badly with when attempted.

The parody elements also tend to be hit-and-miss with people. I think the bullet time effects are ok in their exaggeration, although in a world now inundated with bullet time parodies and jokes, it loses some of its appeal that it had a decade ago. The Revolutionary Girl Utena references/parodies (notice that the "weapons" in each show are pulled form someone's body) are interesting if ultimately fairly simplistic. I think the South Park moment is pretty funny, myself.

Yes, this is all wrapped around a, what I think to be, successful coming-of-age story; Naota being a mostly everyday kind of kid growing up in not so everyday circumstances, but still grappling with the same issues that many of us will grapple with. Perhaps, at times, FLCL is too crammed and kinetic to make sense of everything it's trying to say, but I still maintain that it is incredibly important and largely very successful 21st century anime work.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Chinese Ethics, and Comparing Chinese and Western Philosophy

Part 1: Introduction, and Examination of Basic Confucius Thought and Influence

Section 1: An Introduction

It is perhaps not surprising that, as China becomes an increasingly visible global power, many in the west are viewing it's rise with fear and apprehension. This is perhaps because, unlike, say, the UK and the US, and even Germany, which share common ethical and political ancestry, China is very different. From a cultural, religious, and political perspective, it's norms and mores have been established without overwhelming influence from the likes of ancient Greece and Rome, and the religious practices tend to be more entwined with each other and esoteric, to an extent. America, and the west, in their cultural exportation, has influenced this in recent decades, but Chinese philosophy still has numerous stances and thoughts of incommensurability with common western philosophy. In this essay, these differences will be explored, as well as similarities, and the religious and cultural roots of China will be examined, as we look into the Far East nation that is poised to be the world's largest economic power within our lifetimes.

The depth and breadth of comparative philosophy between China and the west is increasing in recent times, as the two global political spheres clash and combine. There are many different thoughts that attempt to reconcile the two major ethical fundamentals of each sphere, and there are also many who prescribe to a sort of radical incommensurability; that is, the philosophical inquiries, answers, and statements, are too different in one tradition as to have meaninglessness with regards to the other. A case of, to put it simply, apples to oranges. Some take the stance of more moderate incommensurability; a case of both understanding and incompatibility. There are even some who believe that the common roots between both Chinese and western philosophy are similar, often based upon the precept that we are all living, afterall, in the same world.

Any discussion of Chinese ethics and philosophy must include the major religious and/or belief systems of both the nation of China and those with Chinese ancestry. These include Buddhism (of the Mahayana school), Taoism, Confucianism, Ancestor Worship, and Chinese Folk Religious beliefs. Some of these have influenced politics and daily life more than others.

Religion in China, like most countries, has a complicated history. The communist revolution and rise to power in 1949 established a government that, much like Stalin before it, manhandled religion out of daily life, creating a militantly secular state. The remnants of this remain to this day, with approximately 40-60 percent of the Chinese population claiming to be agnostic, atheist, or non-religious. Of the remaining population, traditional Chinese folk religious beliefs and Buddhism happen to be the most common religious inclinations, but like many East Asian countries, these beliefs mix and encompass both each other, and other belief systems and religions, most notably the aforementioned Taoism and Confucianism.

Section 2: Introduction to Confucianism and its Role in Chinese Society

Traditional Chinese ethics, which have seeped into modern times, focus on the cultivation of a worthwhile life, responsibility to family, particularly parents, as compared to strangers, if humans are naturally good or evil, the necessary participation in attempting to reform and cultivate socio-political structure, and proper actions when in a position of power.

Filial piety; a respect for parents and ancestors, is one of the most valued mores of Chinese ethics. In Confucianism, it is a virtue to be held above all the others. In The Analects, Confucius says that "uprightness lies in fathers and sons covering up for each other." In many ways, it is almost a reverse nepotism; nepotism being a human universal. This respect towards parents is often extended, partially, to larger manifestations. In many ways, although not to the extent of family, the state is seen as a parental unit. More on this, in part, later.

Also at the center of Confucianism is the idea of compassion, and loving others. “Simple in manner and slow of speech,” was seen as a positive. Even self-deprecation could be seen as necessary in order to avoid bragging or self-idolization. However, perhaps Confucianism is most famous for the Golden Rule; “what you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others."

Other Confucian virtues include the promotion of traditionalist conduct, and the ability to make judgment calls that result in determining what is the "right" course of action. With this in mind, center to Confucian thought is the idea that all people have the ability to cultivate themselves correctly, and be "good" people. However, Confucian thought has often been utilized by the state in contrasting ways with its values, with numerous Chinese governments wielding it as a state religion demanding legitimism and submission to authority, by way of the Confucian emphasis on meritocracy. This stands in contrast, however, to an idea central to Confucianism that essentially states that good governance is done by example, and by first governing oneself. This is similar to the Taoist "wu wei" aptly described as; "the less the king does, the more gets done." This strange contradiction seems to have been excused by many academics and politicians, perhaps because of fear of punishment from the state at large.

As stated, central to Confucian thought is the belief that all people can become a person of, essentially, perfect morality and virtue. Where Confucian thought differs from Aristotelian thought is in how this is done. While Aristotle did espouse cultivation of character being in part a result of habituation, Confucius placed a supreme importance on ritual and expressing already established cultural norms in a way to show respect, something Aristotle did not do. “A man who is not Good—what has he to do with ritual?” says Analects 3.3. This central tenant has perhaps fanned the flames of a large Confucian resurgence in modern China, with mainstream essays and articles offering support in making Confucianism a state religion; a far cry from mere decades ago, when the idea of a state religion was not only alien, but categorizing Confucianism as a religion was contentious enough.

This assumption of all men being capable of perfect morality is perhaps used presumptuously in support of rulers. If; then. They have the capability to rule, we must respect their senior status, thus, their rule is legit.

With regards to ritual, Confucian thought, perhaps contentiously, holds that ethically significant and morally positive forms of respect are often taught to us through cultural norms and behavior, thus providing reason to respect traditional societal norms via ritual. Whether this is a correct belief is, of course, debatable. For example, children are (presumably) taught to answer questions, perform greetings and farewells, by both parents and the society around them. This manifests itself as a sort of support for the communitarian thought that we group more heavily with East Asian societies. This behavior is seen as almost aesthetically pleasing; that is, a community working perfectly together and harmoniously through established modes of respect and virtue is almost a "dance." Infact, while generalizations are to be avoided, there is a sense of communal conformism - not consumerist conformism - that permeates Chinese society. Perhaps this is an effect of the proclaimed "communist" government, but the rugged individualism that is so valued in the west tends to be less important in China, and other nearby countries. This can be argued to have been a result of the various religious and philosophical thought espoused by fundamental Chinese belief systems, particularly Confucianism.

This dichotomy is espoused in other ways. Confucian ethics places importance on inter-personal relationships and development, as opposed to individual autonomy. That is not to say that Confucian ethics absolves us of individual autonomy, just that it is seen as a sort of living in a way that one sees as "right," in contrast to rabid self-interest, even at the expense of others, we see espoused by the free market frontiersmen in the western world.

The Analects do place value, however, on doing what is right even if it is unrecognized or praised by others, or conventionally disapproved. Remember; we all have the ability to be "right," afterall. That said, Confucian ethics are generally regarded as rejecting the idea that there are infinite ways to live. There is a "right" way. However, Confucius adamantly opposed heavy state influence and legally backed and presented morality, instead proposing that example is the best way to lead, and that people must be allowed to make mistakes in order to learn the right way.

Confucian ethics is seen also as de-emphasizing personal gain at the expense of a group. However, this is not to say that individual gain is to be subjugated by the community; rather, we are lead to believe that there is a relationship between the individual and community, and that "good" for one is not always good for the other, whereas we should strive to do good for both. An individual's interests often rely on a group, and a group's interests often rely on each individual of the group. This idea of group and individual interests having a symbiotic relationship is relatively distinct from western thought, which separates the two frequently.

In the political realm, Confucius emphasized shame over punishment, believing that pervasive punishment would lead to attempts to escape it. Confucius believed that virtuous rulers were just that; virtuous, and said virtue would help to cultivate civility and positive ethical behavior from the populace at large.

Confucius also was known for his emphasis on education. His rebuke of intuition - "gut feelings" -- as opposed to study, seems ahead of it's time. It should be noted, however, that Confucius saw study as a sort of emulation of a teacher who, essentially, knew what he or she was doing, and was familiar with all important ritual. Morality was seen as the ultimate teaching to be had, and Confucius was willing to teach anyone, no matter class standing, as long as they were eager to learn.

Mencius, a later Confucian scholar and the most revered after Confucius himself, further established the idea that human nature is inherently good. However, whether this is fulfilled by everyone is a matter of their exercise in virtue, like ritual. Mencius also emphasized compassion and empathy, while simultaneously admitting to rulers having certain "mandates" to rule by way of the virtue. This seemed to suggest a slightly more supportive ideal of the state and rulers, as opposed to Confucius, who grew up a bit of a political cynic with regards to the system at the time.

Mencius also firmly supported being steadfast, and accepting, essentially, what life throws at you, without dwelling on what is out of a person's control. In effect, one should not relax proper moral cultivation in an effort to change what can not be changed.

Even though Mencius thought humans were good, essentially, he believed that not everyone had the proper predispositions. Like Confucius before him, Mencius emphasized ideals like reverence, filial piety, and correct morality. Mencius also established that example is the best form of governance, but further stated that societal order takes it's roots in familial relationships. Allegiance, in turn, is a result of the support of the individuals and the families they make up. Mencius also emphasized the idea of avoiding shame. He established that shame, or disgrace, was not just a reflection of social standards, but of ethical ones. He also established the importance of certain behavioral necessities; respect for elders, humility in groups, while still allowing for emergency changes.

The final prominent Confucian scholar we will examine is Xunzi, seen as a bit of a "rival" to Mencius in many circles due to his contrasting opinions. While his influence is not as accepted or widespread, he still is one of the most well known Confucian figures.

Like others before him, Xunzi placed supreme importance on ritual, and also duty. However, he also espoused a much more hierarchal view of society, in that people had their roles, and they should stick to them. These roles were traditionalist duties and rites, to avoid immoral desire, and would have to be overseen by those of higher educational and social standing. A sort of meritocratic oligarchy, in effect. He believed that a strong state could limit the harmful desires of the populace. There is a bit of a coincidental relationship with Buddhism and Xunzi, knowing that. Xunzi believed that desire lead to much of the ills of society, much like Buddhism holds that desire leads to suffering. His staunch belief in removing unkempt and immoral desire drove much of his personal morality. This idea of a stronger state is perhaps more influential than some give him credit for, considering past Chinese political systems, and even the current one.

Some of Xunzi's biggest detractors were Taoists, who had a much more free flowing view of morality, and perceived it as more spontaneous and not necessarily some firm, artificial human construct. Their political differences were varied; some Taoists were supporters of a strong state, others of near anarchy. This complex response contrasted with Xunzi's essentially "one size fits all" view. Infact, the Taoist's, along with many earlier Chinese academics, placed action in the realm of spontaneous thought as opposed to direct reasoning that was more common in western philosophy. Xuzin was a bit of a Chinese outlier, in this regard.

Xunzi believed that tradition established modes of behavior, and that these modes, if established, would help create social order. Xunzi seemed to value social structure and order more than previous Confucianism scholars. The elite class that would rule over the workers would do so because they knew how to apply the workers creations and work. This stands in stark, stark contrast to later Maoist and communist thought that valued the proletariat, at least in theory, and that became the predominant political establishment of China through much of the 20th century. Whether that theory was actually practiced or not is highly debatable.

One of Xunzi's most controversial stances is his outright rejection of Sun Tzu's "The Art of War." Xunzi believed that military strategy and technique were not the most important facets to achieving victory, but was instead winning over the people in support of the war. While this belief may have seemed strange and absurd in pre-mass media centuries, many nowadays would contend that his conclusion is spot on, citing media coverage and ensuing population exhaustion in conflicts like the Vietnam War and the Iraq War.

Like many Confucian scholars, Xunzi placed extreme emphasis on learning and never ceasing to learn throughout one's lifetime. He emphasized the requirements of long work and dedication in reaping the rewards of education. Xunzi was a bit more pessimistic with regards to human nature; establishing his idea that not only were humans not inherently good, but that human nature was a barrier to positive cultivation. However, he did attest to the belief that humans could, through hard work, achieve the sort of moral perfection envisioned by Confucius.

Xunzi's reflections on punishment are much more intune to the current Chinese government's stance, noting that China executes more people, for example, than the rest of the world combined. The importance Xunzi placed on punishment separated him from his peers, and he advocated severe punishment to keep people in line. This idea has perhaps influenced criminal punishment in modern China.

Xunzi's meritocratic view extended to both society and the individual, in that goodness or badness was not something to be "born" with, but instead resulted in one's output.

Much like other Chinese thinkers, Xunzi viewed normative arguments largely as fruitless, and tended to avoid them when possible. This ties in with the sort of communal conformity touched on earlier, executed by avoiding potential conflict.

Of the three major "religions" in China; Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, it is easily assumed that Confucianism has had the most profound political influence. Even though surveys demonstrate that more Chinese consider themselves Buddhist, the fact that Confucianism has largely been accepted by intellectuals, and that it originated in China, perhaps explains it's large influence on Chinese thought through the centuries, and it's apparent renaissance in current times.

Thank you for reading part 1 of my essay on Chinese ethics and their formation through the major Chinese religions, and comparing Chinese ethics and philosophy with western ethics and philosophy. The following is a brief list of the next parts I hope to write:

Rudimentary outline:

Part 2: Examining Basic Taoist Thought and Influence

Part 3: Examining Basic Buddhist Thought and Influence

Part 4: The Metaphysics of Chinese Religions and Their Effect on Chinese Society: Theism and Afterlife

Part 5: Comparative Philosophy: Chinese and the West, and Revisiting the Differences Between Major Chinese thought and Western Thought

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Reading and 'Working'

Work has been really, really, really quiet lately. Especially this week. Few people and fewer phone calls. I can't complain.

I've found myself lately doing something I never do and never want to do; juggling several books at once. I am currently reading 4 books, and I don't like it because everything just drags out. What takes a week to finish takes four. It doesn't help that the books I am reading are goddamn huge. I am reading Journey to the West, which comes in four 600 page volumes. I am reading the second Drizzt collection, to try to get into fantasy again (more on that in a bit) which is three large fantasy books in one. Looking for Alaska is the third book, and it's actually short and pretty easy to read so far, but my Kindle I was reading it on froze up the other day and I haven't been able to fix it yet. Finally, as research for my novel that I will never write, I am reading Red Pine's The Diamond Sutra translation and commentary. That is a good 500-600 pages.

Anyways, fantasy. I used to love the crap out of fantasy books. I still love Lord of the Rings, but that's where my fondness starts and ends for fantasy. Those were books about characters, before the terrible genre standbys had infiltrated the genre. I know I am generalizing when I talk about fantasy, but after trying to get into it several times, I just got tired. Tired of racial attributes, black and white morality, stock characters and storylines. I think I lost faith a good 7-8 years ago when Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, which started so good, literally became arguably the worst piece of literature I had ever read in my life. That is not hyperbole. It is that bad. Imagine a writer devoting entire pages to the strength of one's tea, or the floral pattern on a dress, while simultaneously creating a plot in which literally nothing happens, and every single character becomes an incredibly one dimensional sex fiend. Words can not describe my dislike of that series.

So, I tried in recent years. I picked up some Forgotten Realms books, and outside of R.A. Salvatore's Drizzt Collection (which manages to be somewhat morally complex and character driven and well written) I have had no luck. Darkwalkers on Moonshae? Kill me now.

I picked up a Magic: The Gathering book, having loved the card game in middle school and really digging the lore. I read about 10 pages then shelved it indefinitely.

As I am writing this though, I realize I am having the same struggle with another genre that has been near and dear to my heart in place of fantasy; sci-fi. Now, I am about as anti-nostalgia goggles as it gets. I wouldn't go so far as to say everything modern is always better, but I am a big fan of modern cinema and literature. I don't see the complete decline in quality that some say is occurring. Perhaps it's just because we haven't had decades to weed out the bad, maybe it's rose-tinted glasses, whatever. But I have been totally without sci-fi for months now. I picked up some short story collections of some award winners in the genre and didn't really like most of them.

Most of my sci-fi favorites; the first book in the Dune series, the early Foundation books, Brave New World, We, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Fahrenheit 451 and various Ray Bradbury short stories, are several decades old, or more. I have even thought of picking up a Star Wars book again, before convincing myself that everything wrong with Star Wars literature is what frustrates me with fantasy. I remember finally giving up on it early in high school with some weird bug alien invasion series. Plus, I don't like Star Wars nearly as much as I used to.

I guess it's good that I am enjoying what I am reading now, then. Perhaps I am just more of a drama guy now. I am enjoying my time with Journey to the West. It has a lot of things in it that professors will tell you not to do. Fight scenes are generally vague and short. The narrator makes frequent remarks to the reader about continuing to find out what happens next. But it all adds to the whimsical feel of the book so far (I am about 200 pages in is all). The Monkey King who played center stage up until lately was a wonderful character. He was rambunctious, devious, greedy, and yet, strangely strong and admirable at times. The fight scenes were larger than life and exciting, even if characters always avoided death. The cast of characters as a whole has been interesting, even if you have to mostly imagine up what they look like.

The second Drizzt Collection picked off where the first one left off; pretty good but not extraordinary. The villain is not very compelling, sadly, as he basically amounts to some mystical source of massive magical power being unearthed after hundreds of years dormant. Stop me if you've heard that one before. But Salvatore has an eye for breathing life into anything and everything; giving towns and people characteristics and traits that make them seem at once familiar and exotic. By the time he is done, the characters feel about as real as they can be.

In the meantime, away from literature, I have started watching several animes. I am giving Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex a third try. It sounds like something I should love. Sci-fi, cyberpunk, strong female lead, great soundtrack and atmosphere, and politics. What a show! But I have seen it through one and a half times and remained unimpressed each time. I am now on episode 8, and so far, I am finding it much better this time through. I am not sure what changed.

I also started Casshern Sins, and will be watching Megazone 23, Nitaboh, and Howl's Moving Castle in the coming days to review on the anime blog I am a part of. Megazone 23 is horrible. But, it's so bad it's funny in some respects. We'll see how it all goes. Howl's is one of my least favorite Miyazaki works, but I want to give it another shot.

My gaming side of things has been quiet still. I was playing Dissidia 012 for awhile as well as The 3rd Birthday, but now I am going dormant again. Final Fantasy IV Complete Collection and Prince of Persia HD Trilogy are in the mail, but I don't know if they will get me back into things. I guess I just find myself drifting more towards music and movies and anime and reading instead of games, when I have free time. Not sure what's up.

Oh, and the weather here sucks. It's 40F and raining. Man, I need to live somewhere tropical.

Anyways, I am not too sure why I wrote this whole thing. I was bored at work and just started rambling and decided to go with it. It's a very self-indulgent piece but I felt like writing it up. I'll spare you from reading anymore though.

-GoodEnoughForMe .

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Biblical Literalism

I recently found myself lurking on a forum that contains a fairly prominent Young Earth Creationist member. Before you snicker, this guy is a decent person. He just appears to be under a misconstrued opinion of both The Bible and Christianity at large. And he wants morality to be based on The Bible entirely. But I digress...

This got me thinking on why YEC and Bible literalism is such a prominent minority (and perhaps majority in some areas) in America, while I will explore, briefly, how it is in direct conflict with the true intent of The Bible and Christianity. This will deal quite a bit with Christian theology, as a heads-up, and it should be noted that I do not believe in God or any higher being. With that out of the way, let us begin.

Biblical literalism has it's roots in an evangelical hermeneutical approach to Scripture and Protestant fundamentalism, and often results in people taking Creationism, Noah's Ark, etc., as actual, literal truth. The only case that allegory or metaphor is being used in The Bible is when it is explicitly stated, according to most literalists. I am going to ignore the overwhelming body of evidence that goes against The Deluge or Creationism, because most literalists don't accept that in the first place, and instead view this from a theological standpoint.

Literalism shares a bit of common ground with the "pick and choosers" as some people call them; people who pick and choose passages from The Bible to support their worldview, while ignoring others. The most mainstream application of this, perhaps, is in the diminished role that The Old Testament has in modern Christianity, to the point where many Christian theologists and Christian laymen make little apologies and simply say it is not reflective of true Christianity. However, like Literalism, we often see certain allegory still constrained to the belief that it is not allegory.

To cut to the chase; the act of picking and choosing, or in computer terms, cutting and pasting passages from The Bible is inherently lopsided. Christianity was never supposed to be represented in that way. Christianity was never founded under the pretense that the Bible is a source of infallible knowledge, or scientific knowledge. What it is supposed to represent is reason, and said reason can be based, when accurate, on scientifc knowledge. Look at the opening verses of John's Gospel; Logos/Jesus. He is the Word. Logos is a Greek term meaning reason. Thus, Reason made the world, and the world was made through Reason. Therefore, the world is inherently rational. As Logos also is a part of all humans, humans are also inherently rational (that is an entirely different can of beans).

The idea of reason/rationality being a fundamental part of Christianity was espoused by the likes of Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria. The Trinity itself was developed through assumed "rational" meditation, and goold ol' fashioned debate.

This idea continued well into the 4th and 5th century by the likes of Basil of Caesarea, Ambrose of Milan, Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine of Hippo, among others. The understanding of Christianity was drawn from secular information at the time. The idea that God is rational and humans are rational led them to use morality implored by modern, secular reasoning. There is no contradiction between what Christianity showed and what human reason showed. And while at times many theologians thought that the latter needed to be corrected by the former, there was no inherent conflict between recognizing both of them as integral to Christian morality and knowledge.

So, in effect, Protestant fundamentalism and YECers are directly opposed to what Christianity was originally supposed to be about. They essentially deny that Christianity is reasonable, by allowing interpretation that directly goes against all reasonably and rationally developed evidence and consensus. It leads us to believe that they are saying that all scientific consensus is not just wrong; but fallicious, and deceitful. It pits religion against the reason it was originally founded to represent. They are, ultimately, saying what many atheists and agonstics have been saying for years; that religion is unreasonable, without really knowing that that is what they are portraying. They are pitting their religion against the world.

True Christianity was never about following the Bible in all cases all the time. So what if Paul thought creationism was true? We now have the information that shows that it isn't; he did not. Why do literalists cherry pick that bit of information, but casually dispose of the fact that Paul also probably thought that the sun revolves around the Earth? Very few people are willing to argue against the Earth actually rotating around the sun, so why is creationism still such an issue? If Paul had ostensibly said that the Sun revolves around the Earth, would modern Christians take that at it's word? Probably not (well, not most of them, at least). So then why still take creationism so literally?

Actual Christianity is about incorporating many facets of knowledge, not just the literal word of The Bible. YECers and Protestant fundamentalists are bastardizing the religion, essentially. This is why, just like modern scientists ignore YEC claims, so to do Christian theologists. It is, quite simply, not a legitimate interpretation of Christianity as it was set out to be.

Perhaps ironically, these Protestant fundamentalists share more in common with Muslims than other Chrstians, because Muslim theology is built on the fact that the Koran is an unfallible source of knowledge that contains God's direct teachings to man, and that the Koran has everything we need to know; we just need to learn to interpret it. This is not a very different world view from Protestant fundamentalists.

Review: Ergo Proxy

As I very, very slowly make it through watching and reviewing my latest anime disaster (.hack//Liminality), I felt it appropriate to share a much more positive write-up of an anime; one Ergo Proxy.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The New American Radical

(older writeup from last year)

In November 2008, a rebuke was given to the American conservative movement, one that had been building amid anger at an unpopular War in Iraq, a new recession, and displeasure with Bush and his fellow Republicans. The rebuke came in the form of a Democrat held Congress and President. It was, by all appearances, the biggest blow to the conservative movement in decades, and the remaining Republicans tried in vain to distance themselves from Bush and the old guard.

Nobody said it was the end of the conservative movement in America, just perhaps the movement as we knew it. The Rush Limbaughs, the George Bush's, the time of the brash and at times obnoxious conservative was being replaced by a more moderate, humble one. One that would work together with Democrats to get things done, one that could swallow their pride and admit they or their party was once wrong.

But strangely enough, something different happened. As the recession lingered, people began to turn their focus to the Democrats and Obama. For better or worse, they were tied inexorably to the economy; see a recovery, and the party would continue to win elections, see it falter more, and prepare to be voted out. Even if the actual power of the Democrats over the economy was somewhat limited, it could both be their saving grace, or their doom.

The GOP has long had a history of out talking the Democrats. Even in the worst of times, the party has long been held as the gold standard of promoting their own interests.

So, as 2010 plowed forward, with the economy still in the dumps, and a Democratic legislative and executive branch ratcheting up the national dept, the GOP realised that their return to glory was at hand.

Yet, it wasn't about being moderate or humble. It wasn't necessarily about actual public policy either. It was about being angry. Angry at spending, angry at health care reform, angry at a still bad economy.

So, what did the conservatives do?

They drifted. Even farther to the right. As one political pundit said, "moderate Republicans are dead."

And indeed they are. As the Tea Party makes strides and gets representatives elected, and conservatives run on the old dialogue of cutting spending and cutting taxes, they are catching on. A Tea-Party candidate got elected to run for Congress in Delaware, a liberal, or even generally moderate conservative state. The fact that O'Donnel, said Tea-Party representative, and one who has previous ties to witchcraft, and religiously driven MTV anti-masturbation campaigns, tells you all you need to know about the state of the American conservative movement.

And yet, the movement gathers steam. Everyone in the country is angry. Most voters don't really understand exactly what that the Tea-Party stands for. Everybody is "mad" though, and the idea of voting for the anti-establishment guy or gal is emotionally attractive. As one political pundit put it:

"If you polled Americans about whether they want to abolish the Department of Education, which includes the incredibility popular PELL Grant system and subsidized college loan program, most Americans will tell you no.

If you polled senior citizens (which make up a disproportionate share of off year elections), and asked if they want to privatize social security, most will tell you no. Same with Medicare, or National Parks. These are tenets of Tea Party candidates.

What voters HEAR though is that TPers are against Bailouts and Federal Spending. Well sure, that sounds good! When you dig into it though, you'll find support for policies that are outside the American mainstream."

And yet, people like Rand Paul of Kentucky, a representative running for Congress, has said that the Departments of Education and Energy need to be eliminated. Another extreme right winger, Alaska's Joe Miller, has said on national TV that unemployment benefits are unconstitutional. Marco Rubio of Florida has campaigned almost solely on one issue; repealing health care reform.

One has to wonder where the Tea-Party was when Bush skyrocketed the national debt. Nary a single protest was seen or heard about his spending from the party, because it didn't exist until Obama came about. Perhaps it is because, while preaching small government, many of these same Tea-Party supporters are those wishing to increase the role of faith in the government, as is Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, and end things like abortion and the gay rights movement. Small government doesn't seem to apply to areas of personal life with them. They can't touch your money, but they can stick their paws into your personal life.

This November will mark another rebuke of the politicians in Washington, and anti-incumbent fervor for both Democrats and Republicans is running high. The Republican party though has found a new way to enlist the masses, and is riding sky high on polls and studies that indicate their fall from grace is over and done with. It may be the end of conservatives as we know it, but instead of moderating, we are left with something much, much scarier.

The new American radical.

Man's End

(this is now an old post that I'm not sure reflects my point of view. I feel this post still might be a bit too gendered or binary or some such. I can't even really read it, anymore. Long story short, skip this post and destroy all men)

No, not the end of Man or anything like that. Rather, the end of man. The end of "the age of testosterone" as one writer put it. The end of socially created and accepted male dominance. It's a long, slow road to equality, with a lot of work ahead of us, and to say that men and women are on even or nearly even footing is false, but progress is in steady motion.

For thousands of years women have been repressed. Dating back to religious stories where women were at fault for Man's fall, and even before that, female representation and equality has been missing.

But now, that world of alpha male breadwinners and "manly" men holding all the keys is ending.

Decades from now, the leaders, the breadwinners, the famous researchers and policy makers will be made up of more women than men.

In some places, that change has already happened.

Earlier this year, women, for the first time ever, made up the majority of the workforce in the US. This population shift has been accelerated by the recession; 75% of jobs lost were held by men. It should come as no surprise; areas in which men typically constituted the vast majority of workers; construction, manufacturing, etc., have been hit the hardest.

Men still hold the cards at the very, very top, most notably CEOs and politicians, but even that is slowly changing. Female CEOs largely receive higher pay and greater bonuses than their male counterparts. A recent study of 1,500 top US companies from 1992 to 2006 revealed that companies with women in higher positions performed better, particularly in positions or firms where “creativity and collaboration may be especially important.”

Similar trends continue elsewhere. Clinics that offer sex selection for children in the US are reporting across the country that demand for boys is at an all time low, a stark change from a time as recent as 1985, when half of all women said they “must have a son." That number is now only 15%.

Physical strength is no longer the barometer of success that it once was, and slowly but surely not accepted to come only from men. Communication and thinking are the prime motivators of success. No longer are jobs as restricted to one gender or the other by societal roles.

The OECD Gender, Institutions and Development Database reveals that countries that have more power held by women are doing better, with very fex exceptions, economically. Pirates and climate change? Perhaps, but striking nonetheless. Countries that are lagging behind in women's equality in the workforce are losing out. The 2007 Economic and Social Survey by Escap came to the conclusion that the Asia Pacific region is losing as much as 47 billion dollars a year because of restrictions on women’s access to employment opportunities.

Predictions are saying the same thing. 13 of the 15 job positions predicted to see the most growth over the coming decade are held primarily by women. For every two US men who get a college degree this year, three women will get one.

As women continue to pass men in areas of employment and education, it is perhaps ironic that the very thing that hampered them is now hampering men. After years of discrimination and secondary roles, women were taught to be adaptable and receptive to change. Men held a much more comfortable, less dynamic roll. Head of the family, no ifs, ands, or buts. As the equal rights battle rages on and equality gaps start shrinking, that adabtability for women has proved crucial. That's not to say sexism was a net positive for women; far from it. But it is an interesting twist.

Even in media old trends are breaking. Gone are the days of movies like The Expendables being released once a week. Gone are the tough, brawn over brain, non-introspective lead roles. Up in the Air even managed to make actor George Clooney, long a representative of male sex and strength, portray a broken man "too old to be attractive," as rebuked by one coworker in the film, and merely a pawn in another women's affair. This postmodern breakdown of "man" is representative perhaps of many men who are uncomfortable being a househusband, or making less money than their female spouse. Many are seeking identity in a changing world.

This is not a cry for female superiority. Indeed, modern third-wave feminism's closest thing to a rallying point is the end of gender roles. And while feminists fight for the end of gender roles in regards to women, they'll be glad to tell you they also want them ended for men. Women have been down the road of inequality for thousands of years, and know it's not sustainable or right to try to "flip the tables," so to speak.

While there are certainly physiological differences between the two sexes, and we still grapple with the idea of nature vs. nurture, neuroscience has demonstrated that experience can change brain structure and function. Early experience can completely and permanently change the chemistry and function of genes inside of cells, causing significant effects on behaviour, as reported in a recent special issue on the male and female brains in Scientific American Mind. The article states that gender differences and roles are often exaggerated and flamed by society and culture, not innate predisposition.

Perhaps if society stopped with silly rules stating that men should never cry and should be less apt to emotional display, we could foster more attuned, compassionate, sensitive, and expressive men.

It may be increasingly a woman's world.

But that doesn't mean men can't contribute too.

Bang: Sessions 23-26

I have long maintained that the last four episodes of Bebop might just be the best sequential four episodes of any anime I have yet seen. But after recently seeing episodes 23 and 24 of Bebop, for what has to be at least the 7th time, I am inclined to say that it just doesn't get any better, and might never.

Warning: Before you go any further; this post contains heavy, heavy plot revealing, and world ending spoilers for Cowboy Bebop episodes 23-26, and subsequently, the end of the series. I also wrote this with the assumption that you will at least know the characters I reference. You have been warned.

One of the first things I find interesting about episodes 23 and 24 is that, on a show often predicated on action, these two episodes are almost entirely action free. Episode 23, for all intents and purposes, is.

For those who need a quick brain jog; episode 23 - or should I say Session 23 - is Brain Scratch. Let me begin by posting the opening dialogue, a statement by one Dr. Londes.

"What is a physical body? The body is merely an object. It is an existence all too impure to store the gods within us called souls. Now you will remember. The blood stained history! Material desire. Hunger. Sexual drive. Desire to dominate. Desire for fame. As long as there is a body, desires will be born. As long as there is desire, human ego will not disappear. Humans will continue to fight to fulfill their bodies' desires, and it will never end. At this rate, there is no future! Now awaken your soul! Now be rid of that filthy body!"

Cowboy Bebop is a lot of things; classy, sleek, well-produced. But it is rarely anything more than a really, really well-done space western. Brain Scratch changes all of that, for at least one 24 minute segment.

Dr. Londes is modeled in part after Marshall Applewhite, the, for lack of better ways to describe him, batshit crazy founder and leader of the Heaven's Gate cult that led to the mass suicide of 39 people in 1997.

I don't want to paint a black and white picture here, and neither does Cowboy Bebop. Dr. Londes, in this session, is the leader of a religious cult that seeks to essentially "digitize" the human brain as data and upload it to the internet, allowing the human soul to exist forever, free of the confines of the human body. He is not exactly a role model. But while Marshall Applewhite is totally batshit crazy, Londes has moments where you can sympathize... almost. Maybe.

Being a Japanese animation, and considering the influence Buddhism has had on Japanese society, it's easy to see some carry over. Notice the reference to "human ego" in the opening statement by Londes. Portraying desire as flaws. While the latter is not exclusively Buddhist, the idea of an unchanging ego mostly is. Buddhism holds that an unchanging ego (Ä€tman) is a direct result of ignorance. Ignorance is, in turn, a source of suffering. An enlightened person, one who's ego or self is highly developed, is no longer at the mercy of desire; desire being another root cause of suffering.

And yet, there is also something deeply humanist about the SCRATCH cult Londes founds. Mortality is something we all have to face at some point, and the idea of transcending it is incredibly appealing to many, many people. Uploading a person to the net is something that was also explored in later anime, like Ghost in the Shell. It's an interesting study in what makes us human; could we theoretically take our brain - memories, experiences, thoughts, etc. - and "code" it in a way so that it can be downloaded again?

In this day and age, it's also easy to seen some comparisons to Scientology; the aggressive recruiting, the steps taken to be admitted, etc. But I don't think that SCRATCH is as crude or criminal. To an extent. When Dr. Londes is asked about why so many members of SCRATCH are committing suicide, he falls back on the argument that he is not forcing anyone to do anything. And he isn't. But it doesn't take a PhD to recognize the persuasive power of religion on people (later on, we do learn that he has essentially murdered people in an unrelated case, which basically casts any sympathy for him aside).

This is a wonderful episode though, and the technology aspect is great too. The "brain uploading" I alluded to earlier is done through, of all things, a brand new virtual reality gaming system. But this is one that directly "taps" into your brain; you are in the game, your thoughts control it. This is something we have also seen in other works, perhaps most famously in the realm of cyberpunk literature and "Snow Crash." It is something that we are, in real life, aggressively pursuing, so that we can remove the need of the somewhat clumsy controller that works as a bit of a barrier to a fully engrossing experience.

The mix of internet recruiting, video games, and savvy marketing of SCRATCH portrayed by Cowboy Bebop seems way ahead of its time, considering the show is a 20th century production.

Londes is also a bit of an odd-one... well, duh. But his SCRATCH group has a couple statements on various religious beliefs:

"What lies beyond that [death]? Heaven? Hell? Reincarnation? Such things cannot possibly exist. Those are mere excuses..."

"Why do you think people believe in God? It's because they want to. It's not easy living in this rotten world. There is nothing certain while living on in this world. Do you get it? God didn't create humans. Humans created God."

Londes' biggest beef is actually, though, television, which he claims has become a religion. His rant about television isn't particularly new or revolutionary, but it's just one part of Londes. And, considering the end, it becomes a facet of a complex case.

You see, Dr Londes isn't "real." That is, he is not a person. He never was. Dr. Londes is the creation, or dream, of a 15 year old boy in a constant vegetative state for two years after a medical accident, a former hacker who was hooked up to a brain reading device much like the aforementioned video game. He then used this to create Dr. Londes and put forth his ideals through the creation of SCRATCH.

Dr. Londes is eventually "shut down," screaming for life, ironically, as his existence is erased.

Session 23 ends up being an incredible mix of religion, technology, mortality, self-doubt, and some good old fashioned soul searching. It evolves Bebop, for a moment, into a much more reflective, introspective show.

Sessions 24-26 are a remarkable example of character investment. They are conclusions; conclusions to a story that is nearing it's end. Session 24 once again forgoes action, but packs an emotional punch, with a satisfying end to Ed's story. And that's about it. Really. Faye Valentine begins to wonder where she belongs. As "Call Me, Call Me" blazes out from the speakers, you can't help but feel a deep sadness well up when Spike and Jet look on at Ed's "Bye Bye" message. Ed is one of my favorite characters of all time; a goofy, original antidote to sexualization and stereotypes, a tomboyish girl, sometimes a boy, with a flair for technology and hacking. Her leaving begins the somersault of emotions that is the end of Cowboy Bebop.

But, it wouldn't be Bebop without one last bit of class. Let's fast forward to the final Session. Spike is telling Faye that he has to go to Vicious, the head antagonist of sorts. Both Spike and Faye know that Spike will likely die. There's a tense moment of dialogue where both characters are standing close to one another, face to face, discussing it. If this was Hollywood, Spike would instantly grab Faye and make out with her, as trumpets blared from the soundtrack and tears welled up in her eyes. But it's not. So he simply walks away, and Faye, frustrated, shoots her gun into the air. We never really know what, exactly, was there. Was it love? Friendship? Simple self-interested worry? Spike is, afterall, part of Faye's family now, one that's already lost now Ed.

So, we're left with Spike, seeking to end Vicious and start again with his long lost love, Julia. He's searching for something he once had, something that he has lost. Maybe he is doomed to fulfill this life of searching and illusion, of endless pain (perhaps tying in to Buddhist philosophy again). It is an action packed, guns blazing charge into Spike's eventual demise. And yet, as the blood sprays, the body count rises, and Spike makes one last fight for his life, we realize that Bebop was never about the action, or the technology, or the martial arts. Those may have been parts of the show, but it was always, always about the characters and the lives they lead. At the heart of the science fiction western is the beat of a character study or slice-of-life so successful, that it is impossible not to feel something at the end. I recall when I watched Bebop for the first time, going into it completely unspoiled, seeing the last Session unfold before my very eyes. As Spike hit the ground, saying "Bang," near the end of the final Session, and the camera started to pan up, I knew it would cut to the Bebop; with Spike in bandages, a faint grin on his face, as Faye and Jet ribbed him for almost losing, as they flew away into the distance, happy forever.

But it never did. There was no happy ending, no family reunion of sorts, just one lone star blinking out of existence.

That is how I felt when Cowboy Bebop ended; we lost a star, and there's something sad about knowing that we may never see these characters again.